Librarians without Libraries?

December 27, 2008 by
Filed under: Commentary, Library, post 

In his continuing series about Government Information Liberation, John Shuler considers the role of collections in libraries. One particularly revealing moment in his discussion is his day 60 post in which he describes a series of questions that he poses to his graduate students to get at the “fundamental things we do.”

The Question and Conclusions

Can doctor still be a doctor without a hospital? They usually answer — of course. Can you be a lawyer with out a courthouse? Again — affirmative. Now the money shot — Can you be a librarian without a library? Dead silence.

One would hope that the questions prompt a discussion and don’t just end in “dead silence.” Although John doesn’t tell us what the discussion, if any, was, he does give us his conclusions: possession of “material” might have once been central to the purpose of libraries but, in the digital age, possession is much less important part of what libraries do.

Even though John qualifies his conclusions to allow for some limited role of collections for some libraries, he overwhelms his caveats with assertions that collections begin and end with the physical ownership of “material” and that “we will not own (possess) much of the material.” He even coins the phrase “Gutenberg Librarians” to deprecate “possession and/or control” (66) of information by libraries.

So, John’s essential, bottom-line conclusion, regardless of his caveats, comes across clearly: The net, John says, has brought on “the beginning of the end” of library collections (35).

I think his conclusion is wrong and the question he asks is misleading. You can see how misleading the question is by turning it around and realizing that the professions/institutions he uses are not parallel:

  • Do doctors build hospitals? (No)
  • Do lawyers build courthouses? (No)
  • Do librarians build libraries? (Yes)

But the real problem is that the question implies a shared understanding of what a library is — a shared understanding that I think we need to articulate explicitly. I think that, before one asks “Can you be a librarian without a library?” one should ask “What is the role of the library is in the digital age?” John has been outlining what he thinks the role of librarians should be and he apparently wants to separate the role of librarians from the role of libraries. Very well: let’s examine the roles of both with some discussion, not dead silence.


I think John is implying is his series of posts that librarianship in the digital age will be about helping people navigate a complex, networked maze of shifting, changing information. Librarians will help users “connect the dots” and find connections that are not otherwise explicit (47). While there is nothing wrong with this view, and there is much to recommend it, it doesn’t go far enough and it misses a key role for libraries.

As John portrays it, this view accepts that libraries will be less about selecting and preserving information and building digital collections and more about providing services for information over which librarians have no control. Librarians, in this view, are valuable precisely because they have no control over information.

This view accepts that information will be tightly controlled by producers and distributors. What is available, who can use it, under what conditions it may be used, and when it becomes no longer available will all be controlled by government agencies, publishers, individuals, organizations, and other “content” producers.

John also proposes that “librarianship” will be more important than “libraries.” To me, this sounds like librarians will be analogous to travel agents who, because they deal every day with the complex, difficult, disparate, unconnected systems, are better able than the traveller to navigate these systems and find the best flight at the best price. So librarians, in this view, will help casual information users navigate a variety of complex, difficult, disparate, unconnected, public-freely-available and proprietary-and-licensed information systems. Just as travel agents have no control over what flights or trips are available or what they cost or what restrictions are placed on them, so librarians will have no control over what information is available or what it costs or what restrictions are placed on its use.

In this view, librarians will not manage collections but will license the right to read from those who control information. Whether the license comes in the form of payment of dollars to a commercial vendor and a written contract that licenses access, or an FDLP designation, or a contractual “partnership” with GPO, or the anointing of permission by Google Books legal department, the result is the same. As a recent article in Library Hi Tech says, “In future, librarians will no longer manage media, they will manage rights” (Böhner, Dörte. Digital rights description as part of digital rights management: a challenge for libraries. Library Hi Tech 26, no. 4 (2008): 598-605). This view reshapes the role of librarians from information providers to information gatekeepers; from information curators to business-officers who sign contracts and pay bills.

Who would want to go into that field?


John hasn’t said much about the role of libraries except to assert that, for many people, the digital environment is now the “default library” [emphasis added] that supports broad access to a “collection” of government information (51).

But, shouldn’t we be asking about the future, not just describing the present?

Shouldn’t we be asking about the relationships between doctors and lawyers and information? Certainly doctors and lawyers need a body of literature to practice their professions. Instead of asserting that users have access today, shouldn’t we be asking, “Who will build and manage and preserve those collections and ensure long-term, free access to them?”

Shouldn’t we be asking what guarantees we have that the information we want today will be available if we want it tomorrow? Shouldn’t we be asking who controls access to that information and what are their reasons for providing access? Shouldn’t we be asking who will pay for long-term preservation and access?

Just because users who are not familiar with information policy, information economics, or information technologies are happy with current access to information does not mean that they will be happy with the access (or lack of it!) tomorrow or in ten years or a hundred years. Providing easy access at one point in time does not guarantee easy access at a future point in time and can actually mask problems of long-term access.

It is one of the roles of librarians to think beyond today and one of the roles of libraries to guarantee access for tomorrow. We need to think about the long-term. Using short-term convenience as a reason for avoiding that kind of thought is evading one of the key roles of librarianship. And assuming that producers and distributors will have the same values and ethics and practices as librarians is to confuse the role of producers with the role of currators.

Maybe the real questions we should be asking are:

  • Can lawyers practice without libraries?
  • Can doctors practice without libraries?
  • Can libraries exist without librarians?

The word “library” does not mean “I have some information.” If it did, bookstores would be libraries and publishers would be librarians. We need libraries in addition to publishers and bookstores (and government agencies that distribute information as a by-product of another, primary, mission).

It is all about control

Let’s be clear, then. Even in the paper and ink world, libraries and their collections were about wresting control of information from producers and distributors and granting control to local communities and information users. A publisher could take a book out of print, but a library could keep it available. A user could purchase a book and pay for magazine subscriptions, but could use the information for free at the library. Libraries leveraged economies of scale for the benefit of the community, enabling every community member to have benefits of access to information that no individual could possibly afford.

The need for wresting control of information away from those who wish to control the access to and the use of information has not changed in the digital world. But the battle lines have shifted and we need librarians in the fight to keep free, open, usable access.

“Content providers” want to replace copyright with license agreements. Producers want to charge for every single use and dictate who can use information, under what conditions, and in what way. Governments want to be able to alter and even withdraw information after it has been released. And the proliferation of requirements to register to read or use information portends a world in which people will not have the right of privacy when reading.

It is ironic that, given technologies that enable almost unlimited use and re-use of information and that enable information to be distributed and used and re-used almost without cost, we face a horde of stakeholders who want to limit access, charge for every use, restrict re-use, and look over your shoulder to see what you’re reading.

More inaccurate conclusions

As noted above, John hedges his conclusion a bit. His wording is that “possession is much less exclusive or destiny for any one institution” and preserving and organizing the information sources “will remain important — but is no longer our exclusive responsibility” (66). He expands on that idea:

  • [G]overnments are taking back their possession of information sources. (60)
  • [M]any other web sites [are] capturing the lost or deleted pages. (60)

And from these, he draws conclusions:

  • [Information will] remain with the producers or be delivered directly to the users by the producers. (50)
  • [W]e will not own (possess) much of the material we mediate on behalf of our user communities. (51)
  • Possession … is no longer a social good that is dominated [by] the dominion of libraries. (60)

To me, these summarize one possible scenario out of many. And, IMHO, this scenario is not one librarians should be content to accept or embrace. Why? Because it almost certainly guarantees that a lot of bad things will happen: loss of access, loss of free access, licensing constraints, DRM constraints, loss of information, loss of usability of information, and more.

Different Questions, A Different Answers

In a separate post, I will examine those issues in more detail, but I’ll close this post with some assumptions and a couple of final rhetorical questions as a way of addressing John’s question, “Can you be a librarian without a library?” The assumptions:

Society needs: organizations that select that information that deserves preserving from the plethora of information that surrounds us; organizations that then acquire, organize, and preserve that information; organizations that provide trusted, free, private, secure access to and service for that information.

Society needs organizations that have the complete mix of all of these roles as their primary mission (not a secondary mission or a by-product of publishing, or dissemination, or making money). In the case of government information in a participatory democracy it is particularly important, even essential, that society has such organizations.

Reliance on those who have some, but not all, of these roles will ensure that some of these roles will go unfulfilled. Reliance on organizations that have some or all of these roles as a secondary mission or by-product of another mission will endanger free access to information, preservation and integrity of information, and the privacy of readers, and will increase the risk of the loss of information.

The rhetorical questions:

  • What would you call an organization that fulfills all the roles listed above but “The Library”?
  • Why would libraries want to abandon these roles to organizations that do not have these roles as their primary mission?
  • If libraries do abandon these roles, what is the risk that society will lose free, open, access to its essential information?

I think those questions lead us to conclusions that are very different from the the ones John reaches. I will examine this in more detail in another post.


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