A response to: The Vanishing Librarians

I have decided I would weigh in on what is sure to be a contentious article by John Berry at LibraryJournal.com.  The comments that follow the article are already thoughtful and articulate. The rhetoric is surely turned up a notch as well. Here is the link: The Vanishing Librarians – by John Berry

If I understand correctly, some key points that John makes are:

  • Library positions are being dumbed down or as he says “deskilled”.
  • Libraries are being “managed” by successful business types from various industries, with backgrounds like: retail, academia, fund-raising or law rather than “professional librarians”.
  • Historical library functions like cataloging, circulation desk positions, the reference desk and heaven forbid – the “sacred” role of materials selection, have all come under assault due to automated systems, outside vendor services and cuts to staffing.
  • The success indicators of libraries have become measured in things like “products collected by patrons  now called “customers”” rather than the “usefulness or impact of the service on the quality of life”.
  • His surprise at how librarians are standing by without raising alarm or concern at the “erosion of standards”.
  • And the subtitle of the article: “The library becomes a dehumanized supermarket or a chaotic bookstore”.

Without any mention of the following issues, I am unclear whether Mr. Berry takes into consideration some of my observations over the last 6-7 years after being in hundreds of school and public libraries.

In many – but not all – libraries, I would make the following general trend observations:

  • General library funding has remained flat or is decreasing while all general expense items: materials, payroll, related benefits, utilities, and general maintenance costs have risen putting a real squeeze on all resources.
  • Collections are generally becoming dated – with a considerable amount of the nonfiction materials becoming obsolete.
  • As staffing levels are cut – general service levels to “customers”, including open hours have declined.
  • Computer technology for customers, both hardware and software remains behind the curve: both computing speeds and software functionality isn’t keeping up with the general public’s own computing resources.
  • Most libraries are dreadful at marketing (telling customers) about their available materials and services. Libraries have been slow to consider or to use the new technology, low to no cost, marketing strategies that are being used by small and big companies and nonprofit organizations.
  • Many small library websites are generally: low content, outdated and lacking in any of the modern service based internet features most customers now use and take for granted. Things like: customer reviews, customer based rankings, two way conversations and most importantly appealing, effective, promotion of products and services.
  • Many libraries are not operating in the 24/7 “always on” world like many other commercial ventures that customers now expect. We have instant messaging, next day overnight,  streaming video rentals, drive through anything and nearly instantaneous news from anywhere in the world. The world seems to be turning very quickly these days. I can’t say the same thing about many libraries.

I would argue that at least some libraries are failing to keep up with the needs of their customers based on some real issues and challenges they face. Other libraries have found a way to move forward.

In light of my observations, I continue to be amazed at how some librarians are so resistant to change. I respect the sacredness of the work that good librarians do. However, when librarians fail to update their own skills and stay abreast of the current developments and improved functioning of libraries – some of the shine comes off that “luster”. I am confident that those craftsmen and artists who painstakingly hand wrote and illustrated the manuscripts and written volumes of the middle 1400’s decried that dreadful printing press as it became prevalent. Or how about that pesky, “how dare they take away our card catalog” debate that librarians had.

With scarce funds, wouldn’t a library be negligent in their responsibility and use of taxpayer funding if they didn’t:

  • Pursue efficiencies related to basic operations: circulation,  cataloging and more.
  • Look for “best available” ways to offer services and library functions for their customers.
  • Consider new technologies and methods to provide real direct services to customers, wherever they are.

I continue to believe many great libraries pursue a strategy of continuous improvement based on the current needs, as well as the expected future needs, of their customers. New technologies and new vendor solutions offer improvement opportunities for libraries. I also believe that the library profession itself holds the keys to being able to codify, analyze, find, and use the vast amount of future information that we will face in our lives. Librarians will be the ones who can help us “customers” make sense of it all. Customer support for, along with the financial and positive political benefits that customer support brings, is critical to the future of our libraries. Without serving our customers needs and operating in a style and manner that customer want, libraries jeopardize their own success and future.


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One Response to “A response to: The Vanishing Librarians”

  1. The vanishing academic subject librarian « Infonatives Says:

    […] response to Berry’s article, Brad Fish writes that some of the things that Berry doesn’t consider include the fact that funding has not […]

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