Monday, October 01, 2007

Speculative Libraries and Librarians

Every Monday, I will be writing an essay on libraries (and will last as long as I can sustain it). Today, I'm posting two articles because while I wrote these essays two weeks ago, I find that it's becoming more and more relevant in light of The Filipino Librarian's recent blog entries.

Indulge me in this week's entry if you will. I will venture not into the actual state of libraries but one of many possible futures, perhaps even dare to dig deep into the platonic ideal of libraries. First and foremost I think is the question of what is the ultimate goal of libraries? What services do libraries hope to provide? My opinion is that libraries serve to provide public access to a wide variety of books and reference material. (If you have other answers, feel free to comment.) Why do librarians exist? So that there are those who might assist lay people in using the library. But let me dare ask a question: what is the ultimate goal of librarians? Under what circumstances would their job be rendered obsolete not because they're useless but rather because they've performed their job so thoroughly? Is it not to educate other people so that they too know how to properly utilize the library? Now these two hypothesis seem like an impossible task, a dream we strive for but can never attain. But allow me to speculate.

First is the library problem. How can we build a "better library" so to speak? For me current technology shows us the answer. Imagine a world where a lot of books and reference material (but certainly not all that's been written in the world, I leave that to Borges) is stored in one compact place such as a computer. Now the digitization and distribution of books into eBooks is certainly beyond our present means (for one reason or another, be it political or commercial). But imagining such a possibility is not beyond modern day imagination. We're certainly seeing some books being archived electronically and the access of which is becoming more convenient thanks to the Internet. A future where eBooks proliferate and is the norm is not in the realm of impossibility. One problem that might arise is funding and while there are a lot of public domain texts out there, there's a lot of great fiction and non-fiction that cannot be freely distributed thanks to copyright laws. But wait, I have a solution. Perhaps our speculative library is funded by an organization or group, just as many of our present libraries are subsidized by some institution be it universities or the government. But instead of being housed in actual real estate, they're stored in an online server. Members (with small annual dues--again, the norm for most of today's libraries) login and have access to eBooks which the library bought. (It's not illegally copying and rights are protected because as members logout or aren't connected to the Internet, they don't have access to the book.) Thus people can browse through the library from the comforts of their home and the library doesn't even need to keep track of books that are "loaned out" as books aren't physically taken out. Another advantage is that since it's online-based, Filipinos don't need to be in the Philippines to have access to those books: they could be in Germany, in France, or in Japan. And in the same way, they can be members of foreign libraries and having access to their material without physically being present in that country (or run the risk of ruining that particular book).

Granted, the scenario above makes two assumptions. The first is that majority has online access. I'm not saying that's the state of the world today unless you're Korea but many countries are making that transition so to speak and Korea shows that it can be done. It might not happen five years from now but I'd like to think it'll eventually happen. Before our speculative library can be built, it needs the infrastructure of widespread online access. The second objection might be what happens to print books. I'm not saying that print books will go away in the future. But one thing digital books (eBooks, audio books, etc.) do better than print books is that it's relatively easier to store (doesn't take up much physical shelf space), theoretically easier to distribute and back-up, and more convenient to look up. I'm not saying that digital books are superior to print books but in terms of distribution, it can't be beat and that fact is important to libraries because at the end of the day, they're catering to the public and they must pick the most efficient method rather than the most aesthetic one (there will be, of course, exceptions). Modern day libraries for example could archive and bind broadsheets they compile but some use microfiche and microfilm instead: a year's worth of periodicals only takes up small space, it's easily reproducible (you can print out the microfilm/microfiche), and the microfilm/microfiche will arguably last longer than the actual broadsheets.

But at the end of the day, libraries are only half of the equation. Librarians are equally important in modern-day libraries so what place do they have in this speculative future? Well, for the most part, I imagine that there'll be a lot less "official" librarians. A simple technician can handle the problems of maintaining the server and the institution backing up the library handles all the funds. So what place does a librarian have? Well, somebody still needs to determine what books are acquired by the library. (Thankfully, since real estate and shelf space is not an issue, librarians don't need to determine what books are discarded.) And as much as publishers will encode the books into the digital format, somebody still needs to maintain and update the database as new books are added.

The good news (or bad news, depending on how you look at it) is that's perhaps the limit of the head librarian's duties. What about the other library tasks a librarian is supposed to provide? I think this is where we have an important transition. The lay man is no longer dependent on librarians for assistance. They don't need to figure out how to work the Dewey Decimal System because it should be incorporated into their regular education: books will be accessed not through virtual card catalogs but rather through the search engine. I don't need to wait in line to look for a book or learn the call numbers of books. All one needs to do is to know how to use a search engine. In many ways, those who would use the library have partially become librarians. That's the beautiful part--members aren't just members out to read a book, they've assimilated some of the duties which were traditionally the realm of librarians. And in truth, some duties are also rendered obsolete. Books don't need to be returned to their proper shelf, books don't need to be repaired, information is automatically sorted into their respective categories. Still, one valuable service a librarian provides is that they're able to recommend books. Who says library members can't be part of that process in this speculative library? We're already seeing comments in blogs, recommendations in online shops like Amazon, and public contributions in wikis and message boards. Is it that difficult to integrate a similar feature in the library's online interface? It even encourages library members to be information savvy and learn how to search, research, and utilize various materials available to them. Aside from head librarians, regular librarians won't be needed in this scenario because every member is a librarian.

Of course this is all speculation on my part. There are several factors that might not make the scenario above a reality. The public and the economy could rebel against the eBook concept, no one might be willing to fund such a library, legislation might prevent such an idea from happening, or librarians themselves might contest the whole thing (either for love of print or for fear of their jobs). It's well within our power to stop such a library but the future of librarians? Well, many of today's web surfers fall in love with the written word, navigate through various reference materials and websites, and even compile their acquired information using online software such as RSS readers or bookmarking services like They're perhaps not librarians per se but there are some duties that seem to overlap, don't you think? Or perhaps I'm just a fool who loves to speculate.

1 comment:

Zarah C. Gagatiga said...

there really is a change in paradigm in terms of roles and functions that a librarian must have or must be doing. for one, librarians must be involved in the process by which knowledge is created, processed and communicated. enough of the warehouse mentality. it can be done by machines, but the social, mental and intellectual interaction a librarian invests in his or her library users can not be replaced by gadgets.