Libraries are radical institutions

In this week’s issue of The Lancet Richard Horton’s editorial)61264-7 extols the role of libraries in the modern world. My first instinct on reading it was to applaud. It’s always nice when someone notices libraries and librarians and nicer still when they say positive and energetic things such as

libraries … are radical institutions

and talk about the library as a

catalyst for deepening notions of citizenship….

My second instinct though is to wonder exactly what he is talking about. His thoughtful but rambling editorial ranges far and wide. He talks about characteristics of the modern library reader:

the user has no mind, only a search box; no thought, only keywords

and he describes Google as

the world’s head librarian [whose mission is to] organise the world’s information and, where it can, to squeeze money out of that information.

He suggests that librarians have been sceptical of grand digitisation schemes. I think we do remain to be convinced about Google’s intentions but are probably also a little bit jealous of what they can do.
Richard Horton also talks about “archives” and this is where I begin to lose him. The word has a variety of meanings and he seems to conflate these when he discusses digital archives. He goes on to examine various ideas of what a library should be. I think his underlying point is that the explosion of online availability of all kinds of information has great potential to change the world:

Libraries … are under-recognised forces for global change

but he bemoans our passivity:

_In the health community today, librarians are too quiet. The public rarely hears the voice of the library world in debates about improving health literacy… _.

He calls for a global alliance of library leaders

to strengthen the notion of international libraries of science

suggesting an acronym of DiPLOMAT (Digital Preservation of Library Organisations, Materials and Archives under Threat).
This kind of talk always makes me feel rather inadequate. Running a relatively small library as I do and dedicating my time to serving the needs of a particular group of scientists, I struggle to raise my eyes to such a vast and distant horizon. I rather imagine that many other librarians would feel the same way, as they must prioritise the need to keep their service running smoothly. In fairness Richard Horton does talk of “leaders of the world’s great libraries” so perhaps he is not addressing me but those with higher responsibilities, higher ideals and higher salaries.
IFLA (the International Federation of Library Associations) holds an annual conference dedicated to such lofty topics as “Libraries without borders” and “Libraries: Dynamic Engines for the Knowledge and Information Society”. It has also been active in following up actions agreed at the UN World Summit on the Information Society back in 2003 and 2005. IFLA also co-sponsors the quadrennial International Congress of Medical Librarianship (ICML), the next one of which will be held in Brisbane in 2009 . The previous ICML (Bahia, 2005) included sessions on information for all, access to information for equity and health, open access, and even “Evidence and democracy in health-related decision making”.
I think I can sleep easy in the knowledge that even as I write someone in Brisbane is probably organising a discussion session on DiPLOMAT.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we move further from print to electronic resources to open research, and become more embedded in research workflows.
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12 Responses to Libraries are radical institutions

  1. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Speaking as the end user, I take great exception to this assumption:
    “the user has no mind, only a search box; no thought, only keywords”

  2. Ian Brooks says:

    Sounds a bit bloody rude to me. I’m sure the father of the modern Library system, Benjamin Franklin, would take great exception to his elitist attitude as well! Futhermore, if one isn’t engaging the smaller institutional libraries then where is the groundswell of support for any notion or scheme?

  3. Henry Gee says:

    Whenever people ask me how to sell books, I always say ‘one copy at a time’ (buy my book, go on, do, you know you want to). This applies to libraries, too — in the end, and despite all these grandiose schemes, the library boils down to the experience of individual users. I’ve always liked the library of the Linnean Society because the Librarian (a) was knowledgeable about the stock, and very helpful (b) actually encouraged you to borrow it.
    On a different level, me and Mrs Gee have become closely involved with the outreach worker at our local library in Cromer whose job it is to encourage people to come n and use the library and its services. To this end we organize Saturday-morning storytelling and activity days for children, do readings, play music and so on. I’m even encouraged to bring in my accordion and play it, whch goes to show what lengths they’ll go to…

  4. Cath Ennis says:

    The librarian at my secondary (high) school was a real dragon who hated kids and didn’t approve of them borrowing books. She warmed up to a few of us after realising that we were (usually) there to study, but she still ruled with a rod of iron.
    At the annual Christmas review put on by the sixth formers for the youngest three years in the school, she seemed to crop up as a character in many different skits. Including mine. I spearheaded a version of Bohemain Rhapsody that was about our school, with the “librarian” singing the classic lines “So you think you can borrow a book from my library, so you think you can live or breathe air in my library?”. She was portrayed in this skit by my scariest friend, dressed in leather and a heavy metal t-shirt, and carrying a whip. To her credit the librarian thought it was hilarious…

  5. Frank Norman says:

    @ Henry:
    one copy at a time
    I like that. I always say that the most important thing in the Library service are the users – without them there would be no need for a library at all. The next most important thing is the staff – they develop and deliver the service. After that comes the stock or whatever you want to call it.
    I also like Ranaganathan’s laws of library science in particular:

    Every reader his [or her] book
    Every book its reader

    Save the time of the User

  6. Frank Norman says:

    @ Jennifer and Ian:
    the user has no mind, only a search box; no thought, only keywords
    I think he is trying to suggest that this seems to be how some users’ behaviour comes across. Compare the “good old days” when a library user would come along and spend 30 mins or more explaining what they needed and why and the librarian would spend a couple of hours delving into paper and online sources to ferret out something useful. There could be a few iterations of this depending on the users’ evaluation of the initial results. Now we don’t even see the user – they can just use whatever search box is their preference and we never know how well or poorly they do it, or how well or poorly their needs are satisfied.

  7. Frank Norman says:

    Oh, and Jennifer – remember he is writing in The Lancet so he’s talking about medics! 😉

  8. Maxine Clarke says:

    I think my friend Dave Lull would like your post, Frank, as do I. Your horizons are lofty enough in my view: what could be a nobler professional goal than
    Running a relatively small library as I do and dedicating my time to serving the needs of a particular group of scientists?

  9. Dave Lull says:

    Yes, Maxine, I do like Mr Norman’s posting, and I like that he cited in a comment Ranaganathan’s laws of library science1, which I think still hold. I would add to those laws, for emphasis, two opinions found in the philosophy behind The U*N*A*B*A*S*H*E*D Librarian: the “how I run my library good” letter:
    “The Library is more than information”– Marvin Scilken.
    Books are basic.
    Yes, even these days, I still think books are basic in libraries, at least that’s so in the medium-sized public library that I work in.
    [1] There have been various attempts to update Mr Ranganathan’s laws, for example:
    Ranganathan Online
    Application of Ranganathan’s Laws to the Web

  10. Frank Norman says:

    Maxine – thanks for your vote of confidence in my loftiness 😉
    Dave – I like the “Ranganathan online” article. I think I need to sit and absorb it slowly.
    Books per se are not and have never been the real core of the library I work in – journals are more crucial here. But I interpret Ranaganathan as referring to any carrier of information, not just physical books.
    Incidentally, I always remember Ranganathan because of a story from one of my library school lecturers. One previous student, he told us, wrote in an essay about the laws of “Frank and Arthur”!

  11. Frank Norman says:

    Thanks to the wonders of the NN events diary I see that Richard Horton is talking at the British Library next week about Benjamin Franklin and the Globalisation of Science
    I am tempted to go along.

  12. Dave Lull says:

    With reference to science journals, James Evans states in his posting Research + Web = More Consensus, Less Diversity at the Britannica Blog:
    “For a report published in Science (July 18) [which Maxine wrote about recently in her posting Citation patterns — 14 August 2008 ], I used a database of 34 million articles, their citations (1945 to 2005) and online availability (1998 to 2005), and showed that as more journals and articles came online, the actual number of them cited in research decreased, and those that were cited tended to be of more recent vintage. This proved true for virtually all fields of science. (Note that this is not a historical trend…there are more authors and universities citing more and older articles every year, but when journals go online, references become more shallow and narrow than they would have been had they not gone online.)
    “Moreover, the easy online availability of sources has channeled researcher attention from the periphery to the core–to the most high-status journals. In short, searching online is more efficient, and hyperlinks quickly put researchers in touch with prevailing opinion, but they may also accelerate consensus and narrow the range of findings and ideas grappled with by scholars.”
    “Ironically, my research suggests that one of the chief values of print library research is its poor indexing. Poor indexing–indexing by titles and authors, primarily within journals–likely had the unintended consequence of actually helping the integration of science and scholarship. By drawing researchers into a wider array of articles, print browsing and perusal may have facilitated broader comparisons and scholarship.”