Librarians and Serendipity

A couple of interesting ideas have converged this week and I think they are worth looking at together. First Seth Godin set of a firestorm amongst librarians, when he wrote about the future of libraries (and librarianship):

We need librarians more than we ever did. What we don’t need are mere clerks who guard dead paper. Librarians are too important to be a dwindling voice in our culture.

It is really an excellent post and highlights a lot of what I have been saying for a while about libraries being spaces for learning and creation, and not repositories of content.

A recent post by Kent Anderson at The Scholarly Kitchen interpreted Godin’s post and some other recent writings on the subject as a problem of tying the librarian too closely with the library.

Librarians have a lot to offer, but as long as they are tied to libraries, the calculation will continue to be:

  • book warehouse shrinks > need fewer librarians

I think there is danger in taking this approach. I think there is a lot of hope for libraries in the future, just not as books warehouses. The danger is that as libraries recreate themselves back into something more interesting than book warehouses, librarians will miss out on participating in that creation.

The problem isn’t about linking librarians with libraries, it is in linking libraries with books–or any content for that matter. This obsession with the library as warehouse is really just a blip in the long life of libraries–one that has otherwise been centred on libraries as active spaces for knowledge creation. If we go back to that model, it doesn’t matter if libraries are filled with books and manuscripts or iPads and Kindles, what matters is that libraries are filled with people. And the role of the librarian is to promote serendipity…to act as provocateur…to re-shuffle the shelves and to curate collections in ways that make people think.

As Ethan Zuckerman recently pointed out, people are going to be longing for serendipity. The library is one place (virtual or digital) that may be able to provide it. The lingering question is whether librarians will have the toolset to run these spaces.


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