Libraries without Walls
I was reading tonight in About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design, by Cooper, Reimann and Cronin about interaction design principles and patterns, and they quote (of all people), Antoine St. Exupery: “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.” Cooper, et al, are using it to support their notion that “one of the classic elements of good design is economy of form: using less to accomplish more.”
This struck a chord as I’ve been mulling over a conversation with a new friend about library school and the field of Library and Information Science (LIS), of which we are both students. She was voicing some discontent about whether the field of public librarianship needs a lot of the theory taught now in the MLIS programs in the U.S., when so little of it seems to be applicable to the actual practice of serving the wide array of public needs on desk in a traditional public library. I was mulling over my place in library school: while I have library experience, love the institution of the library, and would be happy to land in one, I’m primarily attending school to further my knowledge of the organization of information, information architecture, and information design. Needless to say, it’s hard to explain to my peers why I’m there, and even harder to explain to folks outside of the LIS community why library school, and what I hope to do.
The St. Exupery quote above made me realize that, far from fighting the information changes happening in my world, I love them. I like the change; I like the act of reduction, of boiling things down to their essence. I adore that now *everyone* has many capabilities to search and retrieve information, where once upon a time it was only librarians and a handful of other professional knowledge workers who could access information rapidly and across a wide variety of fields. And I realized that part of what I love about library school, this blog, and thinking/learning/studying information is that I like not that libraries are changing so drastically, but that in many ways, the walls have come down. We’re all living in a library – one without walls.
An example: Clay Shirky, a thinker of note, writes a lot about how technology and the Internet is changing the world. He writes about scale of technologies and economic shifts and, although neither he nor his critics might say this, I think he writes about the ideas the underpin LIS. In this post on Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of Publishing, Clay says:
“Travelocity doesn’t make everyone a travel agent. It undermines the value of being travel agent at all, by fixing the inefficiencies travel agents are paid to overcome one booking at a time. Weblogs fix the inefficiencies traditional publishers are paid to overcome one book at a time, and in a world where publishing is that efficient, it is no longer an activity worth paying for.”
Although I am an ardent supporters of libraries, a LIS graduate student, and I certainly recognize there are things libraries do beyond serve as a search engines, I can’t help but wonder if the paragraph could read – with apologies to Clay for the change:
The Internet doesn’t make everyone a librarian. It undermines the value of being a librarian at all, by fixing the inefficiencies librarians are paid to overcome finding things one at a time. Search engines fix the inefficiencies traditional information workers are paid to overcome, and in a world where information retrieval is that efficient, it is no longer an activity worth paying for.
Inherent in my edits above are some blind spots: libraries and their staff also serve as collectors, selectors, marketers, conveners, institutions of democracy/social justice/equality. And information workers – broadly writ – are needed more now than ever to sift through information, analyze it, and make sense of it.
So what? I’m not sure yet. I love my field because, largely, I feel it is embracing the massive changes and blending of disciplines that are happening. I love the kind of people attracted to LIS for their diverse backgrounds, and I love the ideas I’m exposed to in school. So in the spirit of these thoughts, I’ve renamed my blog, and look forward to continuing to explore this library without walls with you.