- The Center Cannot Hold, But We Can Thrive
The work of libraries and librarians in academic institutions has been evolving in ways that are leading to a radically different concept of the field. While we still have large paper-based collections, increasingly we are focused on digital materials of all sorts, leased access to resources held on servers around the world, and on the management of campus digital assets that may not even be owned by the library, such as faculty research data, classroom lecture capture videos, digital administrative records, student portfolios, and more. And while we still house library staff in physical buildings, those staff are found more and more to be operating and delivering services outside the building: via digital delivery to the desktop, email and online conferencing, social network sites, research consultations in faculty offices, instruction in the classroom, medical informatics through a smartphone, or shared duty at IT help desks. So collections are de-centered and librarians and technicians are dis-located; can we define our roles when “there is no there there?”
In this issue, several articles show how academic librarians are already offering services and resources in this externalized environment: consulting to manage research data, providing a platform for community-contributed information materials, and proactively working with scholars right from the start of the creative process so as to ensure that materials get curated at the other end of the production chain. We examine Google Scholar, a de facto “library portal” that has flipped around the way we think of our traditional catalogs—it links to us rather than the other way around, and is often the first stop for anyone seeking information.
We also challenge readers—whether librarians, disciplinary faculty, or technologists—to envision their position not only in the world as it is changing right now, but in a variety of possible future worlds in which the institutional structures, economic incentives, and demand for research information may be very different. In our “Strategic Visioning” column, Charles Lowry describes the ARL Scenario Planning Project and a similar UK initiative. These scenarios speculate about possible futures for higher education and research. It is then for us to attempt to formulate what sorts of information [End Page 883] resources and expertise would be needed, and from what kinds of people or products. Some scenarios convey a robust and exciting set of opportunities, while others suggest an impoverished landscape that may hold no place for librarians. Certain themes seem to cut across the scenarios—that services will be highly customized, that information provision may become intensely entrepreneurial, that protective overarching institutions like universities may be nonexistent or fragmented, that funding will be even more subject-driven than at present. There may be a global re-centering of enterprise and education; users may coalesce around diverse large datastores; there may be great demand for translational syntheses and mechanisms for re-use of sources. It is overly simplistic to say that any particular scenario is “good” or “bad”; the point is to be able to continuously redesign the way we access resources and advise about their use, depending on the eternal context. It is not static collections and buildings and internal processes that exclusively define librarianship, it is a suite of services and professional frameworks that encompass yet extend beyond those resources.
How then do we define the field of academic library and information services? Do North American academic librarians share any common skills or issues with those librarians who work in public libraries, K-12 schools, or in developing countries? There are several areas of core expertise that characterize the scope of librarians’ intellectual, managerial, and technical work in a way that transcends the format of materials, or the type or location of a building.1
The librarian is ultimately an interface designer, and that can be something as simple as an alphabetical line-up on a shelf, to a printed or card index, to a multimedia web portal. We’re expert in the management of complex systems and information services, including logistics, technology, and resource allocation. We understand the evolution of forms of communication and information—how it gets produced and disseminated...