Letters to the Editor

The Library's End? A Long Way Off

January 23, 2011

To the Editor:

From time to time, Cassandras from within and outside the library have warned of its imminent demise. The latest warning comes from Brian T. Sullivan in "Academic Library Autopsy Report, 2050" (The Chronicle, January 2). Here's an alternative vision:

1. Book collections in the cloud: In 2050, students, faculty, and researchers get their content from a variety of electronic resources. Technology and copyright laws have evolved over the 40 years since 2011 to make access easy and effective while protecting authors' and publishers' rights. New forms of digital content are constantly being developed and are immediately in demand by students and faculty doing cutting-edge research. The cost of all this content via subscription is prohibitive, so librarians evaluate, negotiate, and provide efficient access to the best content for their constituents. Librarians remain at the vanguard of the fight to share materials through interlibrary loan and other collaborative programs, so that institutions and communities can continue to serve their users regardless of their ability to pay. In 2050, special-collections and archives librarians have digitized most of the materials in their collections to be easily found and used online. But working with rare books, archives, and artifacts remains an essential component of pedagogy and research in many disciplines. Librarians process and preserve these items, and work with faculty, students and others to use them.

2. Customized discovery (help finding online content): In 2050, a variety of systems provide users with focused, relevant content. As the amount and kinds of content increase, the number of systems to access specialized content increases as well. Librarians evaluate these systems to determine which are best for their users, and explore how systems can be linked to one another and to other campus systems to provide a seamless search experience for users.

3. Online research literacy: In 2050, faculty members have little time to teach information literacy in the classroom. New content is being created, and new access systems are evolving. Being in the content business, librarians keep up with the changes and inform users about the changes relevant to their work. Librarians also provide more-detailed, customized research-consultation services to students and faculty.

4. Library-IT-faculty-student collaboration continues: In 2050, the library has been transformed into a variety of individual and group study and work spaces for students and faculty, and into the headquarters of academic support services. Librarians and information-technology staff work together with users to ensure that they have the content, equipment, and systems they need. Libraries and IT departments collaborate easily within a variety of organizational models that depend on the institution's needs and culture, with the common goal of supporting the academic mission. Each contributes to that goal in a different, equally important way.

5. Seamless help services: In 2050, librarians, working with faculty, IT staff, and others, have developed interrelated, sophisticated processes for answering questions about finding, accessing, and using content. These processes have been designed to be seamless to the user. As much as possible, physical and virtual spaces have been developed to minimize the need to answer simple directional questions. In such a rich, complex universe of content, however, users will inevitably have questions no matter how well structured the content. Librarians answer those questions in a variety of ways—using online guides and the latest communication applications to remain accessible to users.

6. Commitment to high-quality, fiscally responsible services: In 2050, economics is of course a limiting factor in libraries, as it is elsewhere in academia. But there continue to be many faculty members, students, administrators, IT staff, and (yes) librarians who are committed to producing work of high quality while keeping within financial and other limits. Librarians are dedicated to the protection of academic freedom, equitable access to content, and the preservation of intellectual and cultural resources. In close consultation with faculty, students, and others, librarians have developed effective, popular programs that teach students how to navigate the complex information environment.

Mr. Sullivan ends his article by stating that librarians "planted the seeds of their own destruction and are responsible for their own downfall," and he implies that this was in part by participating in the digitization of print materials and the development of a variety of online, unmediated services. But librarians should not be resisting these efforts to increase and enhance access to content—a central value of our profession is to make content as discoverable and accessible as possible to as many people as possible.

And in leading these efforts, we are not making our professional obsolete. Librarians in 2050 will be doing the same thing we are doing now—making content accessible to our users. We will be doing this very differently, of course, just as we are doing things very differently now than we did in 1960. The library will look and operate differently, and perhaps provide a different kind of experience for students and faculty. But the library's end is a long way off.

Patricia A. Tully
University Librarian
Wesleyan University
Middletown, Conn.