Your Library, Container, Concept

Tomorrow is the first EVER Five College Libraries All-Staff Event hosted by the Five College Digital Environment and Coordinating Committee (on which I represent Hampshire) and sponsored by the Five College Librarians’ Council. It will be an eventful half day with coffee, updates, a keynote from Yale University Librarian Susan Gibbons, Lightning Round talks by librarians about cool stuff they are doing, and breakout discussions around themes and topics like E-Books and Student Supervision. I am facilitating a discussion called “Library as Concept, Library as Container.” I threw it out there as a topic because I was inspired by a talk Char Booth gave during the fall called ”Library as Indicator Species: Evolution, or Extinction?” It dovetailed nicely with conversations I had at Yale before heading out the door about library futures, and whether or not this new generation of librarians would be tasked with ‘shutting off the light’ and ‘closing the doors.’

With all the discussions out there about library futures and libraries in crisis, it’s easy to jump on the Armageddon bandwagon and picture libraries where the reference desks are buried in tumbleweeds and books don’t circulate because everything is readily and freely available in digital form. If you buy into the idea of the library as a book warehouse, of the library as container of THINGS, then this nightmare scenario just might become reality. And maybe that’s a good idea for some, for whom libraries work best when one can get what he or she needs and get out with a little human interaction as possible.

Personally, I believe that the library is a concept, an important partnership with academic programs built upon a service orientation to support the development of critical thinking skills, digital fluency, and research education in our students. I believe that we are a neutral place for faculty and students to hash out ideas for projects and vent frustrations when work isn’t going well. We broker relationships between people to accomplish exciting work in the digital humanities. We are not a giant book warehouse, but a buzzing community where we curate collections to meet the demands of our communities with tools like book scanners, software, and troubleshooting know-how to empower our students to do new and exciting work.

Yesterday, a neat hashtag meme both amused and horrified me: #librariandrinkinggame. Some of the tweets really get at why I think we need to move past associating libraries with stuff and start thinking about them in terms of service. Like @LibSkrat’s “Empty the bottle when somebody says, ‘you need a master’s degree to shelve books?” or “Drink every time you hear someone say that they could get hired at a library because they like to read.” Concepts are flexible, wide-open – experimental. Containers – well, they just contain. They have boundaries. For the academic library of yore where access to print materials was essential, this was a good thing. But our patrons can access ‘stuff’ from the internet often without dealing with a human at all. A shushing librarian does not stand between them and the book or journal or long playing record. But the human interaction is essential now. We are Sherpas of data, guides to evaluating the wealth of materials available to our students and faculty that they have not even thought of until talking with one of us.

To me, libraries and librarians are concepts facilitating and mediating the container that is scholarship, data, and information, not shushing gatekeepers.