Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The future of libraries - No MLS Needed?

Christopher Kiess takes a look at the future of libraries in this original essay.

The future of libraries – it’s a topic at many conferences and one that always seems to generate conversation and debate. It’s not a new topic. But given the changing nature of information, it is worthy of exploration. Recently, I entertained a discussion amongst librarians on the Web4Lib listserv. And as usual, there were the familiar cries of dissent from both the proponents and opponents of change. However, most of the arguments did little to address the primary question I posed – can we save ourselves?

I can hear the rumbling in the crowd already and am sure to have my head on a pike by noon at the hands of a mob of librarians. But, I think we are obligated to closely examine our profession as it is defined and consider how we might meet the demands of the future through changing our skill set. Rather than simply defending what we do or what we claim to do, why not examine our educational programs as well as the major trends in our field?

Note: I m careful to delineate between the library as a physical place and the librarian. We often do not make that distinction in this argument. The library is becoming less and less of an entity requiring an MLS degreed person to manage it. As cataloging becomes outsourced, clerks become prevalent and we see a variety of other disciplines working in a library, the MLS becomes devalued. I had a respected colleague suggest to me not too long ago that a public library requires an MBA more than an MLS. I would agree.

What is at issue here is the skill set of the librarian and that is a central factor in whether we can save our profession. For example, a large percentage of circulation in a public library is popular fiction and Digital Video Disks. Bookstores and video stores provide a similar function and do not require their clerks to have an MLS. The only difference is in one scenario you pay outright for using the materials.
In order for any profession to remain a profession there must be at the very least a perception that
the profession possesses a skill set that cannot be duplicated (at a cheaper rate), replaced or outsourced. For librarians, this skill set is the organization, representation and retrieval of knowledge and information.
Knowledge and information are always changing, but probably have not changed as much as they have in recent years since the invention of the book or possibly the printing press. Our skills have moved from
information retrieval in a physical space to information retrieval in a virtual space. To adapt those skills further would require us to begin organizing and representing information in an electronic environment in the same manner as we do in a physical space – a virtual library, if you will. There are those who will cry out, “isn’t this being done?” Yes and those who participate in the effort do not largely refer to themselves as librarians. They call themselves information professionals, information architects, knowledge specialists, etc.

Will there still be librarians in the future? Probably, but they may not need an MLS. There will always
be a need for people to find information and for someone to aid them in doing that. But this will take place in electronic environments. We are aiding in that effort now. But, we only aid in a portion of the effort. In most instances we do not organize or manage that same information. Those jobs were list to those with greater technical skills or the willingness to adapt.
Information was always our tool – like a brush to a painter. The tool has changed and we must adapt to that change if we are to survive. And, adapting means making ourselves once again indispensable purveyors of information, not reshelving books or handing out DVDs.

Christopher Kiess can be reached at clkiess at the gmail.com domain

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