Saturday, May 24, 2008

Where are we going?

That's a collective "we" - what's going to happen to academic libraries - and librarians - in the next five years?

I see us becoming archivists, as the physical book loses importance. We may be the caretakers for the copy of record. And I use "the" advisedly. Will we spend the money to have two copies in the library - or even in the state? Or will distributed copies suffice?

Maybe we'll be responsible for printing a physical copy of electronic books and theses. Why even do that? Because electronic documents have two prime characteristics - they are mutable and they are fugitive. You can change them when you want: something we don't want for official documents like laws and vital records. And while paper copies can and do burn or decay, they are longer lasting than bytes, which can be gone in nanoseconds.

Perhaps we'll be teachers and not caretakers or collection builders. As more information is out there, it takes more skills to locate it and evaluate it. We are good at that, and we have two options (or at least two obvious ones): we can do it as a pro-bono service subsidized by our school, or freelance in a just-in-time pay-as-you-go system. Either way, we are information brokers and not warehouse managers, labeling and stamping books. That's been a waste of our skills for a long time.

We may also be information creators. We've done that for a long time, too. We've indexed and cataloged, in ways that are outdated now, but what about new ways? Can we not build KM systems to synthesize the sources we manage? To build recommender systems? People say that IT folks can do all that, but they can't. They're really good at the software and the hardware, but don't care about the content. We do.

This is just step one in my trying to think ahead of the curve. This week maybe I'll think about how other fields have outrun us in our own field - or what we thought was our field, and synergy with other fields.

Or maybe I'll relax and enjoy the holiday. Naw....

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