It’s an exciting time to work in libraries. In many ways, libraries share a lot of features of a young industry: there’s a lot of change, a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of new ideas to sift through. There’s also a lot of enthusiasm and a willingness to change and grow to fit the current market. As a culture the ways that we interact with social institutions has, as a natural progression, changed as our needs have changed. We access information in new ways. Students do research and study in new ways, meaning that academic libraries have had to reevaluate their priorities to better serve their users.
An important emphasis for the academic library is a physical space. As books circulate less and less and university enrollment increases, study space is at a premium. The physical building has become an important and much demanded study space. And because technology is easier to update than a building, many library spaces need to be updated and re-purposed to better serve student needs. Electrical outlets, for example, were originally installed with only vacuum cleaners in mind. But now that students unanimously use laptops, libraries have had to install hundreds more plugs. Physical books are used less and less, but student enrollment continues to climb, and study space is at a premium.
Special research collections are what make academic libraries unique and so are increasingly important. Books and database access are often duplicated between two different university libraries, while archived material is not. Having a strong research collection is an important asset for a library — it attracts researchers and funding. It allows your library to specialize in a specific brand of knowledge. GIS data mapping is another a specialized skill set that is becoming more and more important — having librarians who can work with this kind of data lends a specific skill set and specific assets to a library that set it apart and make it essential.
The Digital Humanities are also an area that is facing expansion, an area that can attract librarians and researchers with unique skills. It’s an area that people are excited about, and an area that seems likely to remain relevant for a great deal of time. However, defining and understanding what the digital humanities are is a difficult task — one that I hope to explore soon in another post.
Working so that the library remains a place that is useful and necessary never has been an easy job, and it never will be. But it’s a job that is essential: we are entitled to knowledge and access to that knowledge — in fact, as citizens of a democracy, it is essential. And change, especially widespread, fast-paced change, is terrifying. But it’s also inevitable. Perhaps most importantly, what libraries are doing now is setting a precedent for the future of libraries — and that precedent might not be specific methods or procedures. The precedent might be as simple as innovate or face irrelevance. As librarians, we have a there is a choice. It’s easy to cling to old ways and sink into oblivion. It’s much harder to be innovative and creative and come up with new ways to meet the needs of your patrons. But it’s also much more interesting, much more useful, and much more fun.
I have the privilege to be working in an academic library at a large research university in Southern Ontario for the next eight months. I hope to use this blog to explore my experiences and thoughts during my time in this position. Please note that the views expressed here are my personal views and do not necessarily reflect the thoughts, opinions, intentions, plans or strategies of my employer.