Third

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.

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4 thoughts on “Third

  1. Hang on there, is the role of the information professional completely dead in other organisations – surely not. It may have changed but I bet they have / are evolving. I always thought it odd that there are no such people in such large organisations as Universities… any scope for a model based on this? More specialised consultancy type project work?

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  2. It’s dead and burried in the financial sector, going down for the third time in the pharmaceutical industry and similer locations. Why wouldn’t this be replicated elsewhere? I fear credit crunch and fiscal realities might be the final nail in the coffin for the as is situation. Places like Bangor and Kings might well be the crest of the annihilation wave that will soon consume us all.

    Or if we’re smart, adaptable, flexible – we might just reach the far shore. But I have my doubts about the plasticity of the organisational structures within which we work being sufficent enough to allow us this room.

    I really, really hope I’m wrong though.

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  3. Yep I think you are spot on. The media that library users expect to be able to access on the way in which they do it has changed immensely over the past few years, however libraries are still viewed and sometimes work as just huge warehouses full of books. In order to maintain a positive future, libraries must tap into the potential to become a hub of varied activity for many communities, such as academic, business, neighbourhood, and social.

    I don’t believe that the role of the information professional is dead however…but it is changing. The problem is that it is changing into an area that is already taken up by other professionals….i.e. computing staff. In order for information professionals to survive they must continually update their skills, especially in the area of technology driven information services, and they must compete for this with established positions within the computing industry. I would suggest this needs to start at grass roots level with the content of library and information courses taught within Universities, but also must be adopted and encouraged by current library staff from senior management to the part-time shelver.

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    1. I think one of my biggest worries is the level of students we’re getting coming up from schools. Information literacy/skills have long been one of our big value added roles, certainly in FE/HE – but now the students are coming equiped with these skills taught in schools. I think we really need to find out just what they are teaching them – so that we can build on the right blocks, as well as fill in the missing bits.

      So diversification is the watchword I say!

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