Friday, April 22, 2005

The future of librarianship - and academic libraries

Before the seminar on digital reference services we had a small discussion about the future of librarianship.

We all agreed that librarianship needs a stronger theoretical foundation. The central issue we discussed was: must this basis be scientific in the traditional academic sense (library science) - or can we develop alternative ways of integrating theory and practice?

I have argued for the latter in Why is quality control so hard?. IFLA Library Theory and Research Section, Berlin 2003. Also available in PDF (IFLA web site) . You can read an important analysis of theory-building in practical disciplines in Donald Schon' s book The Reflective Practitioner: Foundation of Teamwork & Leadership - and there is a convenient summary available on the web.

Jan Erik Roed - university librarian at the University of Oslo, says:

The university library now consists of four components:
  1. The teaching library
  2. The electronic library
  3. The publishing library
  4. The traditional, paper-based library
We must have more of the first three. This means we must have less of the traditional, paper-based library.

Tord Hoivik writes:

A universe of texts

The great majority of subjects in higher education are based on written documents and verbal discussion. In the humanities and social sciences, students work in a textual universe. They listen to lectures that expound the canon - and learn the canonical methods of research. They work with textbooks and classical texts. And they contribute texts of their own - for the benefit of their teachers, their fellow students and their final grades. In the sciences, field trips and lab work are added. But science students continue to read and write.

A visible role in learning

This will continue in the digital environment. This means that texts and documents remain relevant for undergraduate learning. But undergraduate libraries are in the same position as school libraries: they must attach themselves firmly to teaching and learning activities in order to survive. A great tradition is not enough. In the future, libraries for students will only be financed if they provide a visible contribution to learning.

Why use the library?

Undergraduate students go to standardized lectures and carry out standardized exercises. Student behavior is largely shaped by the teachers. The average student aims at an acceptable grade. She hopes to achieve it with a modicum of effort. She will only use the library if it pays to use the library. And this is normally decided by the teacher.

Cooperate with teachers

But university teachers are acrobats. They will only cooperate with librarians if they must. Every day they juggle the demands from classes, colleagues and conferences. They are seldom interested in libraries as such. They will only include libraries in their juggling act if the benefit is evident.

Libraries must cooperate with teachers in designing digital learning environments. This is a new and difficult task for both professions. At the moment I suspect teachers are more uncomfortable with digital resources.

Graduate students

Undergraduates can be handled as a group. In graduate and further education, students work in smaller groups and go to fewer lectures than their younger peers. They study the more advanced literature in their professional fields and are expected to write papers and theses based on independent work. Some of their projects will involve original data collection, and some of their reports will include original research.

These students require a great variety of written sources. In a couple of decades, nearly all the relevant documents are likely to be on the web. But they will need good retrieval tools in order to find the documents they require. The lecturer is normally a specialist in the field and will select the curriculum on the basis of her personal knowledge of the literature. But the library can provide useful support by organizing easy web access to all the readings - and by providing correct and updated bibliographical data.

Personal service

At the graduate level, libraries must offer individual service. In 9 cases out of 10 the students will be under pressure to complete their work in time. In contact with the library they will need rapid, competent and highly specific service.


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