I go to libraries, and check out books. I admit it, when there’s a lot I want to read, I’d rather read it on paper (at 1200 dpi) versus on the screen. And some recent debates have got me thinking about libraries in general, public and university. There’re some issues that are unresolved, but leave me curious.
As the editor on one for-profit journal (British Journal of Education Technology), and now on one ‘open access’ (Impact: Journal of Applied Research in Workplace E-learning), I’ve been thinking more about the role of the journal, and the library. There’s certainly been a lively discussion going on about the internet and the role of for-profit publishers.
The model for decades has been that books, magazine, journals, and newspapers had material that was submitted, reviewed, edited, and published by publishers, and available for a fee. Yes, there have been some free newspapers, paid for by advertising (e.g. San Diego’s weekly Reader was an eagerly sought resource while I was a student), but in general the costs of paper, publishing, distribution, and more meant that information had an associated overhead.
Libraries democratized access, by aggregating purchasing power. People could come in and find material on particular subjects, read popular books, and more recently, also other materials like albums, tapes, CDs, DVDs, etc. Public libraries provided places to read as well, and librarians were resources to find or ask about particular topics. University libraries purchased journals, copies of textbooks, and of course the obvious reference materials, while providing places to study.
Now, of course, the internet has thrown all that on it’s head. With some notable exceptions, people have the capability to put up information (e.g. this blog), to access information (Google becoming a verb), and the distribution is covered in the cost of internet access. Consequently, the publishers have struggled to come to grips with this. As have researchers and learners. On one side, those who say what’s on the internet isn’t vetted, while others say that the proprietary information is irrelevant and the wisdom of the crowds reigns supreme.
One of the consequences has been the call for open access publishing, essentially that articles are submitted, reviewed, and published online, with anyone being able to view the outcomes. This is a threat to publishers, who’ve argued strongly that their processes are time-tested. And universities (particularly for promotion and tenure) have been slow to accept online publication as an equivalent, due to the uncertainty of the rigor of the publication (clearly, it depends on the particular journal).
This isn’t restricted to journals, of course, textbooks are also under threat. And publishers are similarly scrambling. I’ve been advising publishers and working on projects to get them online, and more. The ‘and more’ part is because I’ve been trying to tell them it’s not “it’s not about the book, it’s about the content:, but instead “it’s not about the content, it’s about the experience”. Whether academic publishing will continue is an interesting issue. Publisher’s who’ve depended on this have serious issues. So do libraries.
Which brings me back to my library. It’s a vibrant place, by no means dying. While the book shelves are relatively quiet (though there are dedicated readers browsing the stacks), there are kids in the young book section, people grazing the videos and music, and a queue for access to the internet. They’re tightly couple with other library networks, and so when a book I wanted wasn’t in our library system, they got it on loan from another library system in the state. Easily! They also have ways to make recommendations, even in areas they don’t read in themselves.
How about university libraries? They’re the ones I was curious about, and where I had some thoughts. University libraries are more about research. Popular culture will be distributed across media, and public libraries can have a role as a media access center, but university libraries are situated on internet rich campuses, where the demand for other popular media probably isn’t as strong. Do they have a role?
I’ve argued before that the role of the university is shifting to developing 21st century skills (unfortunately in lieu of our public education systems). The library is well-placed to accommodate this need. They may not be the technology gurus, but they are (or can be) the information gurus. It’s a hub of information searching, evaluation, and sense-making. The librarians may need a mind-set change to not be about finding resources, but teaching their information science skills, but no one’s untouched (teachers need to move to being learning mentors, etc).
I considered, but didn’t title this post “Wither the library”, because I think libraries have a role. They may need to become shift their focus (and it occurs to me that we need to think about how they become more visual), but they still have a role.