Will librarians be the 21st Century Scribes? I think not.

I remember when I got my first cell phone. I was 17, and my parents gave it to me for use only in emergencies. (My first car had a habit of breaking down.) I was one of the first of my friends to own one, and I almost never used it. It was about 2 inches thick and consisted only of a keypad and pull-out antenna (speed dial or phone directory? Pshhht. Yeah, right). It lived in the glove box of my car, and only came out to get charged once in a while. Today, my cell phone holds my entire life together. It stores contact information for everyone in my life, it keeps my schedule and alerts me when I have meetings or tasks to accomplish, it sends and receives emails for 6 accounts, it notifies me of the weather forecast for wherever I am or am planning to be, it reserves library materials for me, it entertains me endlessly with games, including social games (in which it beeps whenever it’s my turn), and it can even monitor my sleep patterns. Depending on my mood or need, it can be my calculator, TV, artists’ canvas, pedometer, GPS system, note taker, or camera (this list is not exhaustive). Oh, and it’s also my phone. In the span of fifteen years my cell phone went from being rarely used for making calls to…well, rarely used for making calls. The only difference is that I carry it with me everywhere now and actually use it…for everything except its original, intended purpose.

Here Comes Everybody by Clay ShirkyOn page 105 of Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky states that “It’s when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen, and for young people today, our new social tools have passed normal and are heading to ubiquitous, and invisible is coming.” I take this statement to be one of both caution and excitement. It seems to carry an undertone of “ready or not, here I come!”

Many libraries/librarians seem troubled by the idea of not being at the cutting edge of technology. But, we shouldn’t be. Libraries inherently reflect society by selecting, collecting, disseminating, and preserving the very things and ideas that society produces. To me, this means it’s not our place to belly flop into the center of the anarchy and panic. We’re obligated to observe and make informed decisions (perhaps educated guesses is the best we can do given the circumstances) on how to move forward. This is not to say that librarians should not be innovative, progressive, or resilient (which Karen Munro elegantly speaks of in Resilience vs. Sustainability: The Future of Libraries). We have to be, especially in terms of what changes to make, when, and how, so we can continue to fulfill our mission in the most efficient and effective manner. This technology evolution (not revolution) is a call for us to reinterpret how we best collect and present information to the world, not to reinvent what or who we are as libraries and librarians. Our very value to society stems from our unique perspectives.

Shirky mentions that it is in the invisible phase in which really profound changes happen. While cautioning that it’s coming, he also acknowledges that we’re not quite there. We still have time to see how things are playing out as we redefine our strategies. We should experiment with technologies, take advantage of opportunities, and listen to our users to help inform our decisions. We should focus on making our voices heard in important conversations concerning privacy, rights management, and the many other issues that are currently clouding over amidst the changes taking place around us. Perhaps our physical presence as libraries and librarians will shift. Perhaps some of the changes that may ultimately better society will threaten at least some aspects of our profession, especially if we’re not at the front lines, but are we the 21st Century scribes? Personally, I think not. Librarians are unified in upholding a set of beliefs and common missions, and these are what set us apart from other points of view. If we stay open minded, become more versatile, and hold these values close as we navigate through precarious waters, I’m hopeful that we will not only survive, but flourish in coming years.

Weekly aha moment/challenge: This week, I felt more of a challenge than an aha moment. The readings, research for the textpert presentation, and class discussions have me realizing just how much of a struggle it is to keep up with changes. While I feel strongly that librarians have and will continue to have a place in society despite the changing landscape, I feel overwhelmed with the amount of work it takes to keep up-to-date with trends and to conceptualize strategies in such a chaotic time. As I processed through my post above, I do think the key is to hold tight to our identities as librarians while we march ahead into the unknown.

3 Thoughts.

  1. Stephanie–
    Your ideas about your cell phone resonated with me and the quote by Shirky. Nice connection. I especially agree with you when you say, “This technology evolution (not revolution) is a call for us to reinterpret how we best collect and present information to the world, not to reinvent what or who we are as libraries and librarians. Our very value to society stems from our unique perspectives.” I connected to our discussion in class last week about professionals serving as gatekeepers. I believe our roles will stay similar–but some of the things we do will change and evolve–but will still need librarians as professionals.

  2. Your comment about your cell phone also struck me. I wonder if there is data out there about the total number of phone calls being made now versus twenty years ago. You don’t use your cell phone much for talking- and well, neither do I. Neither do most people I know, and those calls we do make tend to be brief (except, of course, if it’s my mother on the other end of the phone). However, I’m one of the only people I know- and definitely one of the people under 30 I know- who still has a land line- we use it for our security system, but that’s about it. Even my parents rarely answer their land line- it’s all solicitors now. My in-laws did away with theirs last year. I’m sure texting and emailing has replaced a great deal of what used to be done by phone, but I wonder how drastic the difference over time has been.

  3. Rebecca,
    I haven’t had a chance to really dig, but as far as recent data goes Pew Internet often has interesting statistics to offer. It’s hard to get a comprehensive look of overall cell phone usage trends that includes voice calls. It seems they compare voice vs. text usage or they compare non-voice activities with one another. I did find a little interesting conclusion about the subset of cell phone owners that use the voice function very little:

    “..infrequent voice callers may be divided into two groups – those who use text in place of voice calling to have personal and professional exchanges and those who simply do not communicate with others on the cell phone by any method very often.”

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