What a day we live in; what opportunities it offers our profession. In one view (Robertson) the quantity and dissemination of information in our time ushers in a new, higher level of civilization. He views information as representing civilization, and its explosive growth, spread, and utilization signal a qualitative transformation of the conditions of human life, amounting to no less than a new Renaissance. The impact of the network and the resulting collaboration in work, learning, play, and life is characterized, at its core, by enormously increased connectivity and participation. Whereas my generation assumed they personally must know everything needed for work and life, today’s young people assume such knowledge is not only impossible but unnecessary. They live attached to their smart phones and thereby to each other and the internet. Accordingly, they look to friends or other ubiquitous support services for information about anything and everything, from locating the nearest Starbucks to locating help to solve a problem. The decline of passive TV watching and increased interactive participation unleashes significant “cognitive surplus” (Shirky) making possible such previously unheard of projects as open source software and Wikipedia. All this actually supports Robertson’s point that we live in a new civilization, a Renaissance 2.0.
We can add to the mix Negroponte’s digital world distinguishing place from space, with people communicating and working from anywhere, interacting a-synchronously rather than simultaneously in a world of complete individualization where the audience for an event may be one. Others foresee the fusing of human biology with machine intelligence, with implanted genetic, robotic, and nanotechnology components dramatically increasing human intelligence, longevity, and capability (Kurzweil, Mitchell).
What does all this amount to? Nothing less than a new “world view,” with new perceptions of time and its utility, of humanity and its potential, and of many civilizations, religions, and ways of living merging into a single, global civilization. There is “pushback” as peoples, cities, and nations assert and cling to their unique histories and cultural identities (Castells). Supporting these community building efforts offers an exciting new role for libraries to provide leadership and guidance to the enterprise.
I offer a few more points for consideration. First, a word on mindset: Librarians can be early adapters, as demonstrated in their embrace of new technologies during the past half century. They can also be resistant to change, clinging to outworn processes and patterns of thinking. There is a steady reluctance to undertake professional redefinition, a clinging to the familiar library focus rather than other models, such as “informatics” specialist or learning manager. Forces outside the profession may determine how the matter plays out if librarians fail to become more proactive.
We must review our history and rethink our roots. For centuries the library was “where the books were,” and because the codex was the primary means of exploring, proposing, recording, and transferring knowledge, those collections made the library the “heart of the university” and the primary source of information for the community. The books (and periodicals) were fundamental, but people came to use them to learn, independently and in groups. The library served as the “learning center” long before such a trend was popularized. That center of learning must remain as the core of our enterprise. New “learner centered” opportunities, such as inquiry, collaboration, and experiential learning offer important new professional roles to explore.
Obviously, the dominance of the web and visual culture require technology competence for long-term professional success. Not a given software program or social media innovation, but a basic comfort level and attitudinal commitment to continuous development of these skills. A counter-intuitive requirement is to better understand—in order to effectively promote—reading skills. Help with reading and information culture literacy should be available in any library with professional staff. Purposeful reading (volunteer reading encouraged) is required to counter the shallowness produced by the distractions characterizing internet searching and communication (Carr). Reading remains the essential learning skill and librarians must coordinate efforts with educators, publishers, and authors to vigorously champion its importance. Libraries are particularly well situated to assume that role.
A few years ago it appeared that original cataloging would become a rare practice. But the addition of archival and photographic and audio and web page resources demand a renovation of this skill with the addition of metadata description. Organizing and presenting information is a needed cultural skill that should be promoted publicly rather than tucked away in library “tech services” rooms.
Another portal for the profession today is to participate in the emergent restructuring and redefinition of knowledge. The massive accumulations of scientific data—particularly “big science” data gathered in server “clouds”—cannot be effectively represented in linear print. Consequently visualization is now a cornerstone of the new information literacies. A related process is the shift from departmental/disciplinary foci to multi-disciplinary research methods. The great issues of our day, to list only global warming and carbon dependence, involve multiple perspectives spread across scientific and social-science disciplines. Yet our research training remains heavily discipline specific and academics are avoiding the needed discussions to change that fact. Librarians should play key roles as catalysts and bridge builders converging narrow professional and epistemic perspectives in new “mode 2” scientific methods (Rausing; Nowotny).
The challenges are great, but the possibilities are breath-taking. Librarians must adapt their mind-set, learn new skills, and promote ourselves as part of the solution rather than as cost centers. Librarians, exploiting the rich record of human accomplishment, failure, and future prospects sitting on library shelves (and overlooked by far too many), can position themselves for a vital and bright future.
All the library school profession needs to do is prepare present and future librarians to accomplish these goals … and to adapt to whatever challenges appear next.
Carr, N. 2010. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. NY: Norton.
Castells, M. 2009. The Power of Identity: The Information Age, II. 2nd ed. New
Kurzweil, R. 2006. The Singularity is Near. New York: Penguin.
Mitchell, W. J. 2003. Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Boston: MIT.
Negroponte, N. 1995. Being Digital. New York: Knopf.
Nowotny, H., et al. 2001. Re-Thinking Science. Polity/Blackwell.
Rausing, L. 2010. Toward a New Alexandria: Imagining the Future of Libraries. The
New Republic (March 12).
Robertson, D. S. 1998. The New Renaissance: Computers and the New Level of
Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press.
Shirky, C. 2010. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.
New York: Penguin.