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.