Last weekend, Canadian writer and sometime CBC Radio host Ian Brown wrote a marvelous opinion piece on the future of libraries for The Globe and Mail, “Don’t Discard the Librarians”. He began with the decision of the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board to shutter its school libraries and dump all but four of its library technicians, and moved on to discuss a recent symposium at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, on the future of academic libraries,
Discussion whirled around the radical proposals of McMaster’s university librarian, Jeff Trzeciak. Mr. Trzeciak is the mad dog of research librarians: His deeply digital vision is one in which shrunken libraries are staffed not by librarians, but by information technologists and (much cheaper) post-doctoral students. Those aren’t just ideas, either. The University of Denver library recently put 80 per cent of its books in storage.
Brown also took The Globe and Mail itself to task for its recent editorial,
Even a Globe and Mail editorial called for the death of libraries as “book-centred and quiet places” and their resurrection as “noisy digital hubs” – all to save money, because no one uses libraries any more. “Libraries should not be content to live in the 20th century,” the Globe declaimed, “as it were.”
That might be an interesting point if it were accurate. A couple of hours at local libraries in Toronto proves otherwise. Physical libraries and actual flesh-and-blood librarians seem to be more necessary than ever.
If you have been reading this blog even for a week, you know that my first thought to the something like the foregoing is, what on earth is wrong with book-centred and quiet places? I would have been miserable in both elementary and high school without such places. Doubtless even in the 21st century there are still children like this, who grow into adults who enjoy, and need, such places. And in this 21st century world, I, and my children, need fewer noisy digital hubs in our lives, not more.
And why are librarians even more necessary now? Brown’s answer:
Here is the case for human librarians: You, the information consumer, don’t want to go insane.
Human knowledge is now thought to double every five years. The need for a guide through that morass, for a knowledge concierge, as even Mr. Godin admits, is critical. Anything but old-fashioned, librarians addressed the problem before anyone else. Peter Clinton, a reference librarian and director of the University of Toronto’s information technology services, started his job in 1986, when there were five people in his department and the laptop didn’t exist. Today, with 45 staffers, his is “the only growth area in the library.”
The system his computers oversee is massive. The Scholars Portal provides the technical infrastructure that saves, stores and provides access to all theinformation resources shared by Ontario’s 21 university libraries. That means 20 million scholarly articles, and counting; half a million digitized books, and ditto; plus all the catalogues and surveys and geospatial data the human race feels it might need so far, all available to anyone who needs it.
The need is great beyond academic libraries, and in public libraries, as well:
Not only academic libraries are complex. The Toronto Public Library is the world’s busiest urban public library system. Walking into Toronto’s main reference branch is like stepping into the centre of a very large brain crossed with a large mall.
Nearly 19 million people visit its 99 branches every year, and borrow 32 million items (which means every item goes out about three times). Nearly 90 per cent of recent immigrants stop by the library. Many can’t speak English.
None of that works without human librarians in the equation.
The physical library is often dismissed as replaceable, on the theory that digitized material takes up less space than books, and can be accessed from anywhere. That would be possible, maybe, if the people accessing the material were also digital, and had no need for a human community of thinkers.
“People who don’t have offices really value libraries as places to learn,” [Carole Moore, chief librarian at the University of Toronto's Robarts Library for the past 25 years] told me the other day. More than three-quarters of U of T’s students live off-campus. All those students need a free Internet connection and a place to work when they aren’t in class. If you open the library and make it useful, people use it.
Ms. Moore speculates Windsor’s weren’t open when students needed them.
“I think it’s the idea of a library as a place to think that inspires people. And the fact that there’s a community of other people there, also trying to think,” Ms. Moore said. She was trying to explain the appeal of working in a library surrounded by others.
The life of the mind is a daunting, solitary, often lonely existence: A library gives a mind a home, companionship, and “one of the few places where you can escape advertising,” Mr. Darnell added, as well as “a freedom and an anonymity in that setting that’s really important and that doesn’t exist in other spaces.”
Jacqueline Appleby, a newly graduated librarian now working for the Scholars Portal, objected to relocating books to classrooms – as the Windsor school board plans – for the same reason. “It takes away from the experience of a vast collection in a place where you can decide what you want to read.”
Read Ian Brown’s entire opinion piece here.