Monday, October 01, 2007

Transitioning Libraries

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.

The word transition, I think, can be misleading. The world is constantly changing thus transition is the norm, although where we are headed is not always known. In this article, I want to talk about libraries and librarians for it is at this point in time where we have an inkling as to what the future might hold.

First are the libraries: they're changing. Back in 1996 the library in my grade school was quite different from the grade school library I remember in 1986. I expect that today, the difference between the 1986 library is more evident. There are two factors that come into play: one is that computers are sneaking its way into libraries (and I'm not saying that's a bad thing, merely that it's different). The second is the Internet (the access of which would not be available without the previous element) and how it has become a reference in itself. For me, a library does two things: it stores books and provides convenient affordable access to them. After all, if you're just interested in the former, you don't need a library per se, anyone's basement or warehouse would do. It's the latter service that makes libraries unique. Computers and the Internet have a big impact on how we retrieve and organize books. Arguably both are also leading towards how we store books (i.e. eBooks, audio books, wikis, etc.) but that's a topic I'll discuss in the future. Right now, let's focus on the present and as much as book storage is being altered by computers and the Internet, right now the biggest impact they're contributing is how we access books.

Perhaps the first thing that's becoming obsolete in libraries is the card catalog system. It worked well for its time but computers with the proper software have proved more efficient. Why go through several drawers of index cards when a simple search query would do? And unlike card catalogs, an online database can give you information about the book you're interested in, such as how many copies are being stocked in the library, whether they're loaned out and if they are, when they're expected to return. Also in the case of huge libraries, a digital index is perhaps cheaper and occupies less real estate compared to endless shelves of card catalogs (which could have been used for actual bookshelves). That's not to say computers don't have their disadvantages (it requires electricity for one thing) but the main point is, its benefits outweighs drawbacks.

Online terminals are also starting to creep in, especially libraries with a budget. The libraries in Ateneo and Xavier from what I hear have wi-fi access. Which I think is justified if libraries are to be a resource center. A lot of information is on the Internet after all, including broadsheets (especially foreign broadsheets which might be more expensive if bought here if not outright impossible to obtain), dictionaries, and encyclopedias. These days, I don't even think students are still using the actual print encyclopedias in their libraries assuming they have online access. It's much simpler to search through Britannica or Wikipedia for the same reasons we're slowly saying farewell to the card catalog system (alas, students have yet to find out just how inaccurate Wikipedia can get). In the case of the Philippines though, I think online terminals aren't being optimized. It's not just library patrons or individuals that can utilize them but the library institutions themselves. Since I'm not a librarian, I don't know if it's being practiced here but I have heard of other foreign libraries that swap, trade, loan, and acquire books from other libraries. Connectivity being one of the assets of the World Wide Web, providing such a service seems easier to do thanks to the Internet. It's also easier to research what books to acquire for the library thanks to the web, instead of relying on print reviews or purchasing your own copy of the book before recommending it to the library.

At the end of the day, investing in both technologies is investing in the future. While there are bibliophiles like me who love the feel and texture of books, more and more people are embracing computers when they would otherwise shun print (an interesting theory to prove this is for an independent group to do a survey on the people that blog/read blogs and how much books they actually read in a year--obviously the demographic of my readers will be biased since this is Bibliophile Stalker after all). There is also the question of how much ground audio books and eBooks will gain in the years to come (which is to say print books might make a resurgence but many are predicting digital will be the future of books). At the very least, as a library, you're covering all your bases. (There are also the other advantages such as keeping track of books that are taken out of the library via bar code--a security precaution--but for the most part let's stick with the two main features mentioned above.)

Having said all that, we'll move on to the more important part: librarians. Librarians are integral to libraries although their future (present?) role might differ from their role ten or twenty years ago. Investing in new technologies is moot if librarians don't use them or facilitate their use. Here's one good example: a computer database of all the library's books might be more efficient than the card catalog system but that only matters if there's an archiver who actually encodes all the stocked books into the computer (and guess what, the programmer's aren't going to do it!). The Ateneo Rizal Library (last I checked three years ago) still retained its card catalog system mainly because they included materials which haven't been encoded into the computer. And as much as today's children are tech-savvy, there will still be people who do not know how to use a search engine so educating library staff how to use all this technology is quite important.

When I last met with several individuals who had degrees in library science, one thing that struck me wasn't the fact that only one of them was female (Hi Zarah!) but rather most of them were in an IT-related profession or industry. A part of me is thankful for that since it shows that institutions are preparing themselves for the "big transition" (it might not happen ten years from now but it will inevitably occur). However, it's also scary as the non-technical aspects might possibly be ignored. The present is perhaps the most difficult time for librarians mainly because they can't specialize: they have to familiarize themselves with two elements, the digital-based innovations and brick-and-mortar (for lack of a term) administration. A modern day librarian just can't limit their expertise to just computers for example. We aren't in that day and age when all the books are either eBooks or audio books. They still need to know how to rummage through shelves, through the Dewey Decimal System, or how to do plain old research. On the other hand, the opposite is true as well. You might be a shelving and book binding expert but eventually, you'll need to learn how to use computers. It's not even a choice of possibly making life easier for you. There might come a point whether you must either be trained to learn how to utilize them or be forced to retire. One must be a master of both technologies as long as we're in that transition phase.

There are also other services that a librarian provides yet the lay man isn't always aware of. Somebody needs to archive the books (whether by pen or by computer), take care of them (so that they don't get destroyed), repair and rebind them when necessary (because books eventually get destroyed), or simply return them to their proper shelf (they don't magically do so). Oh, let's also not forget that a library contains more than just books. They also have periodicals (somebody has to subscribe to them and keep track of what's arrived and what hasn't), CDs, videos (and how to convert them into whatever format), maps, journals, microfilm/microfiche (another technology that needs training), etc. Some libraries also keep an archive of various subject matter such as current events and somebody has to cut out all those newspaper clippings and include them into the proper folder. These are services that not everyone makes use of (or are even aware of) yet a library needs to maintain nonetheless (because unlike conventional business mentality, if they don't do it, who will?). I also imagine that as the years progress, librarians will similarly need to be tech savvy and not rely on the technician to solve IT-related problems such as when the network goes down or if the online database crashes.

Nonetheless, the potential for much gain is there. Imagine a world where all the books in the world is housed on a single server from which many computers can access them? Or eBooks where it is possible to loan several copies of the same title without worrying how many students loan them at the same time? Or where shelf space stops being an issue and much of the library's budget can be devoted to books and periodicals instead of real estate? But like all things, technology is a tool, not an end in itself. Without training the people who use them regularly, one might as well revert to more traditional methods.

1 comment:

Zarah Grace C. Gagatiga said...

thanks to the rain :-) i'm stuck in galeria and got to read your posts. you must have been a librarian in your past life, charles!