Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Cambridge Conversation (2)

This is the second part of my report about a discussion between health, academic, business and school librarians held in Cambridge on Tuesday 22 June as part of the CILIP Conversation. Part 1 was all about CILIP and part 2 is about the future of libraries.

Other peoples' reports are also available:  Anna, Anne, Isla, Niamh, Sheila, and Jenni.

What is ‘librarianship’?
There was some debate about whether libraries and librarians need to rebrand as ‘Learning Resource Providers’ or something similar, but this term seemed far too narrow. Maybe there’s something else we could call ourselves, or maybe we just need to be clearer about what librarians do.

One good summary of librarianship (or information professionalism, if you like) that we thrashed out was:
Librarianship is helping people to work what question they’re really asking.

The emphasis was very much on personal interaction and support. The organisation of data can happen from anywhere, but user support and training is best done face-to-face, and one-to-one. This 1947 promotional film emphasises personal interaction in the role of the librarian. Why are we having to work to re-emphasise this now, when it’s surely never stopped being true?

This level of personal interaction and help needs professional staff. There’s definite concern about the de-professionalization of public libraries, and in a similar way about also the closure of government libraries: what impact will this have in the long term?

We discussed some of the ACRL predictions for future of academic libraries, in particular the idea that in 2025 there will be ‘no need to search’ (link to pdf page 16, item number 17 ). This ‘no search’ environment (we wondered if it would be something like foursquare, about which I know nothing) will surely require a lot of unseen work in the background, and it will need common languages and standards across all sources and platforms, and not continual re-invention of standards as we see today (apparently the Europeana project isn’t using Dublin Core standards for metadata but inventing some different standards [I've been corrected in the comments - Europeana are tweaking Dublin Core instead of using it straight, which is clearly better but still not ideal]).  Librarians will have to keep interpreting what people say and want until the semantic web is very, very good indeed, and that won’t be soon! Users expect intuitive interfaces, and need to be shown that there are benefits to learning more complex search techniques.

In 5 years time...
We ended the discussion by trying to imagine the future of libraries and information services on a more manageable timescale than the 10 years asked about by CILIP. If you have thoughts about what your library or service will look like in 5 years (both best and worst case scenarios!), then please continue the discussion in the comments.

School Libraries
School librarians can be very isolated. They rely on local networks, feel distant from CILIP, and unrecognised by teachers. School budget cuts means that there may be no money at all for CPD.
School libraries will have to adapt to match evolving teaching methods and to provide tools to help students find what they need outside the physical library, as well as providing project collections of books for use in the classroom.
There are currently not enough computer resources, but this might change as increasing numbers have their own laptops. Even with their own computers they will need help to locate resources online, and in the physical library.

Academic/Faculty/Subject Libraries
Subject librarians will have to know their subject more so as to be able to provide tailored search and indexing services. They might not need to be the academic, or doctor, but will need to speak enough of their language not to sound stupid, but to sound reliable and useful instead.

Business Libraries
Publications need more detailed metadata, for example about the precise materials used in engineering. This has to be added somewhere in the process, but it will be a lot of work, and it’s unlikely that author or user tagging is the answer.

A Cambridge College Library
In five year’s time the physical library with books in it will still be here. Students are currently very clear that they want to have the physical space to work in, and not even all new academic books will be available as e-books by then, never mind the older texts that are still needed.
Special collections are being digitised, but this can’t replace the importance of the books and manuscripts themselves, and will often lead to increased reader numbers through improved publicity. Digitisation also isn’t futureproof.

What can we do to improve the situation?
  • Collect evidence of what we do in order to prove our worth.
  • Ask our readers and researchers what they want from libraries: this might include help with copyright, and with getting published, more detailed enquiry answering about specific items (see Greening the material text).


  1. Two excellent posts and I love the video, thanks Katie! Thanks for picking up on the point about collecting evidence, I forgot that in mine.

    Re Europeana, their metadata set is based on Dublin Core but tweaked - as many other sets are. Surely the point of Dublin Core is that these metadata elements would be used across the board!

  2. Thanks for the correction - have added a note to the post.

  3. "Subject librarians will have to know their subject more so as to be able to provide tailored search and indexing services. They might not need to be the academic, or doctor, but will need to speak enough of their language not to sound stupid, but to sound reliable and useful instead" can of course be taken as a description of how things are now. Certainly we like to think that's how they are now. What we must prepare for is that the expectations based on that description will be higher and living up to it will be harder.

  4. Good point, Aidan. Thanks for commenting.

  5. What a great video! The world of libraries has changed so much and yet some of the core skills and ideas are clearly still driving the profession. I was playing spot the male librarian throughout by the way - there was actually one, compared with quite a high number of female representatives.

  6. I've really enjoyed reading all your reports of the Cam Big Conv (as nobody is calling it). Wish I could have been there.

    As a cataloguer, I've been thinking about all this quite a lot and might have a blog post about it some time soon.