What interests me most about the current and future roles of libraries (and what draws the distinction between Jim and myself) are the possible ways libraries can transform within a dynamic information world driven more by decentralized creation, distribution and a heavy focus on users. Fair point, Stehle did not directly refer to a digital world library in so many words, but I would argue the article’s descriptions of successful public-interest organizations can only exist if there is such a beast.
My tendency to push this point is not as a zero sum proposition (though the rhetoric can be a bit thick at times) — libraries can only thrive at the expense of the digital world (or vice versa) — is simply not true. Jim and I are agreement that libraries and their social purpose are a righteous thing, and deserve a place of honor in the private and public markets. I agree with Jim, as well, a blended library of both paper and digital sources — as a transitional organization — will survive best in the near future as the digital/paper scales recalibrate constantly. The forces driving this balancing act are energized through the competing commercial and public interests for the right to digitize the paper universe and organize the evolving digital one into something more along the lines of that other digital holy grail, the semantic web. The roles libraries played in the late 19th century with private publishing empires of mass circulation books and periodicals (first set of standardized cataloging rules, periodical indexes, etc.) or the federal and state governments (creation of the modern Government Printing Office in mid-1890s)were as full partners in the best cases, useful allies in others. Those days are long over. Our roles with the information industry today (if I can use that retro designation) is much more as a customer or competitor. Further complicating the issue is how the web has unleashed a greater role for the user to assume their own information destiny (witness the power of social software, self-publishing, blogs, etc.)
But the biggest difference, I think, between the two perspectives rests not on technology — but on the library’s social purpose. We government documents librarians of old were borne into a culture steeped in the lore of collections/possession and selfless local public service (primarily through the model of a depository library) Gutenberg’s Government Information Librarians. Librarians seeking a career path in government information must deal with the fact that collections are being digitized, public services are now a blend between specialized subject and generalists, government services and information sources are now tightly bound together, leaving little room for the traditional roles libraries used to intervene — except on behalf of economically dislocated or those unable to reach the web through their own means. More and more users over the last decade, with the ability and resources, can now access much of the material distributed through and unique to depository libraries. Does that threaten depository library system? Only if we imagine it terms of a Gutenberg Galaxy of information technology and mass media.
My argument is not to fight this change, or ignore it; rather, simply, to adapt to it. Jim and I are in agreement that much that is digitally available out there, and properly considered to be government information, is chaotic, episodic, subject to bad policy and technological applications — or simple corrupt politics. Among the few institutions trying to knit a narrative from this confusion of public knowledge are special interest organizations (profit and non-profit), news media, educational institutions, and, the best of the lot, libraries. Of course there are government organizations working towards the same goal of order from the chaos (Government Printing Office, Library of Congress, Government Accountability Office, National Science Foundation, to name but a few.)
And here, again, Jim and I perhaps share a common ethic and credo of what might be called information marines. This is an image I sometimes use with my library students — picture strong and robust individuals, armed with a certain attitude and knowledge that allows them to storm the rocky shores of ignorance, ready to take on even the must obscure question or problem. And then preserve how they did it in their long term memories. Tattooed on their arms (or chest) — DEATH BEFORE DISINFORMATION!
I like this version alot better than the library action figure often promoted over the last few years. In fact, I am willing, with proper attribution of course, to offer the image and phrase to FGI to start their own action figure to compete with Nancy Pearls conceptual dominance … my people can call your people ….
But this eagerness to challenge the impossible is less Walter Mitty and more of a real attempt to get back to the public purpose of our institutions. And that is what I always like about librarians, for the most part, we are all optimists …. which will best serve us through our long slog along the borderlands of ignorance. Hooah!
See you Day 62