“I aten’t dead”*

* [sic], per Granny Weatherwax in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books

I just read an editorial from The Chronicle of Higher Education by Brian T. Sullivan, an instructional librarian at Alfred University, declaring the death of the academic library. He briefly addresses one of my reactions near the end, briefly stating:

At the same time, the death of the academic library is being hailed by many as progress and the logical next step in the evolution of information.

I wish he had explored that idea a little further, because I am not convinced by his enumerated arguments. Admittedly,  my skepticism was heightened by the very first point on digital books making book collections obsolete. Never mind that not every book yet digitized, nor will they all ever be, nor that the library would have to expensively digitally replicate its physical collection. It also smacks of the old and pervasive attitude that a library = books, and the quality of a library can be determined by how many volumes are sitting on the shelf. As if a library digitizing collections means it no longer has a collection at all. Amusingly, at the end he chastises librarians for committing professional suicide by clinging to long to the mantra “There will always be books and libraries” and other outmoded notions.

He further claims that “[i]nformation literacy was fully integrated into the curriculum,”  “[l]ibrary instruction was no longer necessary,” and “[r]eference services disappeared.” I think he’s grossly overestimating the ability (and inclination) of the typical student (or faculty member) to fully utilize a database or even a Google search. My group in IST 605 did an hour-long presentation focused on the information literacy of incoming freshmen at colleges. Spoiler alert: no, kids these days don’t know everything about successfully locating information. [The very existence of Let me Google that for you is a nice demonstration of that lack.] An early assignment for that same class also had us filling in a chart for different databases showing their different vocabularies and boolean markups and so forth. No, databases are still not user-friendly!

He also is critical of the practice of having untrained persons field basic questions instead of librarians. This practice was being implemented at the SUNY Upstate Medical University Health Science Library and was a topic in my project plan for them. [See VSD Project Plan.] They wanted to be able to better triage questions (and have triage happen on their end rather than have users have to figure it out for themselves), which included getting student workers answering easy questions (possibly developing/utilizing an FAQ-type wiki to supplement). Not to belittle the task of librarians, but to free them up to work on their other projects instead of needing to personally field easy ready-reference questions or inquiries about library hours and what-have-you.

Actually, all his points are adaptations libraries have made to accommodate new information technologies and information-seeking behaviors. The “traditional” academic library may be dead, and, as I quoted above, these little “deaths” mark a change to, as I see it, staying relevant, not dying. Perhaps someday the library of the future will be nothing more than set of websites, a means of accessing fully digital collections with the ability to chat with staff exclusively through computer.

Either way, the full impact of this transition is a long time off. Not all books are digitized. Digital book distribution has been established conclusively. Librarians are information-finders, not mere book slingers. Not all universities have the budget to essentially redo their library structure. I do not know anything about Brian Sullivan or his university’s library. I do know that for the past four semesters, I have not been taught his–I believe rather limited– worldview of academic librarianship.

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