As I’ve discussed elsewhere I’ve been watching the JISC Video on the future of libraries. It’s got me thinking about where I see the role of the academic library, and indeed the librarian, in the coming years. I must confess that increasingly I think the strongest role that the library can carve out for itself in the academic tundra is that of the third place.
The concept of the third place has been around for a while, and it’s one that places like Starbucks have embraced and attempted to corner for themselves. If you’re not familiar with it in essence it is the space that we occupy that is neither work nor home, yet somewhere else where we spend a significant portion of time. Whilst I feel at times this makes the third space the Leicester railway station, I think the idea of a third place is a good one. We all need somewhere to be at times, and as students the library has fulfilled this function wonderfully over the years.
I need only think back to my time at uni – when I wasn’t in labs (work) or in my flat (home) I was in the library (often not working). With the advent of coffee shops, book shops and creative zones in many of the major university libraries these days I can see today’s student would spend even more time here.
A friend of mine, a PhD student, does just this – a large portion of her time is spent using the library and its attached coffee shop and wireless signals. I suspect she does have an office (work) and I know she has a home, but she prefers to spend her time in the third place, the library. This does mean that moves towards making libraries less austere and more welcoming environments where noise, food and drink and activity other than simply reading books acceptable practices is a sensible one.
So far, so good. That means the academic library is doing all the right things for longevity. But what about the humble librarian? The JISC video makes some suggestions about the kind of librarian of the future, and I can say in all honesty that they were describing my own attributes (modest? Nah, this is my blog so a spot of self-aggrandisement never hurt). But this leaves many librarians who posses what I’ll call more traditional librarian traits in a somewhat less stable position. I know friends and contacts around the country, wonderful people all, whom do not fit into JISC’s description of the librarian of tomorrow. What will their role be?
Will it be like the bindery staff I worked with at York with unique and invaluable skills but whom never the less found themselves surplus to requirements in a modern library? Or like Bangor where a diminishing load of face to face teaching, increased automation and deprofessionalisation of the roles meant an end to the need for subject or information librarians as we know them? I fear the answer is yes.
Their role as classifiers of stock is supplanted by cataloguing staff and shelf ready books. Their role as information literacy teachers is increasingly diminished by the increasing level of ICT literacy taught in schools. Their roles as experts on the collections is long gone with the disconnect from book processes, and the introduction of ever more sophisticated search engines, algorithms and the ever present Google. What role is left for them?
I’ll tell you – the third place. Serving coffee in the cafe and lending a ear to other be beleaguered former staff forced out into the icy tundra of academia.
Okay, this might be cynical view, but the truth of the matter is with credit crunch forcing the economic revelation of costly professional staff wages, with a deprofessionalisation of many of their roles and a seemingly diminishing profile in many institutions – it is time for academic librarians of all flavours to step up and be counted.
Diversify and engage with new challenges or to diminish and go into the West. The choice is up to you.