Paul Pival - Future of Librarians Interview

Paul Pival is the Distance Education Librarian at the University of Calgary and he blogs at Distant Librarian. But let's pretend for a minute that you were not involved in libraries. How do you personally use the library? How do you search for and access information in general?

Calgary has a wonderful Public Library system, and with two small children I use it extensively to supplement their reading. I rarely buy books, and get almost all my personal reading material from CPL as well. Their catalogue allows me to place holds and pick up materials from the front desk which saves me lots of time; I really appreciate that service. For personal information I search the web and am usually able to learn what I need on the open web. I do use Wikipedia to get a general sense of a new topic, and if I need more, then I'll find a book or search a journal database, usually though the University or CPL.

What do you do as a distance librarian?

Distance librarians exist as a lifeline for students who study at a distance and who aren't able to present themselves in person at their home academic library. We interact with students almost exclusively online, although we do sometimes get one-shot intros with distance students if they come to campus for an orientation to their program. Email is the biggest communication tool, followed by phone, IM and VoIP. We promote information literacy by creating online tutorials, aka screencasts, to help students learn how to use the research tools we can't show them in person. Document Delivery is a huge part of what we do - making sure the students have access to the same types of resouces that on-campus students do.

What is the increasing technologization of libraries (due, in large part, to Web 2.0 technology) doing to physical library space?

An interesting question, as the University of Calgary is currently breaking ground on a new library building, and it has the words "Digital Library" in the title. We are making sure that the new building has a large amount of collaborative space, which does seem to mirror the plethora of social spaces found online these days. We have found that people still do want to be in the library, though that may be due as much or more to the large number of computers available as to the collections that we have.

We, as a matter of policy, attempt to acquire as much material in a digital format as possible, and have recently decided to choose online access instead of paper subscriptions for journals whenever possible. We realize that all our patrons - students and faculty - appreciate the convenience of being able to access research materials from the comfort of their home or office at hours that are convenient to them.

What is dititization doing to the roles of librarians?

I've noticed for several years that more "traditional" librarians are using strategies that we distance librarians have always been comfortable using - namely meeting the students online. Even the "traditional" students are accessing our collections online, and they don't always want to physically visit the library to get help with their research. Most libraries have offered email reference for many years, but more and more are using chat (library products or IM) to offer real-time reference, which helps the student when they need to have their question answered. We're trying to participate in the social networking sites where students gather, and we're trying to drag our OPACs (online "book" catalogues) into the 21st century so they offer the interfaces and features our students have come to expect from the commercial sites they use. The increasing technologization of libraries is forcing us to expand our horizons to stay relevant.

We still have and use human expertise, but being able to search the bibliographic databases and search engines makes it so much easier. And of course we're able to communicate and deliver services in ways we couldn't years ago.

If you had to name a single technology integral to libraries today, what would it be?

The Internet. We use it for communication, to deliver services, and to both describe and house our collections.

In your opinion, what are the most useful features of libraries today?

Web-accessible collections and the people who maintain and know how to index and search them.

What would you say are the most useless features of libraries today? What can libraries do to eliminate them?

Hmm, sacred cows. Legacy systems. Librarians who aren't willing to learn about new technologies and methods of communication. I wish I knew - much of it will be changed by the passage of time and new blood, but that's going to take many years. There are a lot of people making noise about cruddy OPACs and there are some alternatives starting to emerge - that area might show improvement soon.

What's your best guess about the future of libraries? What will they look like and how will people use them?

I think (hope) we're moving in the right direction here at the U of Calgary with our future building. I think libraries, in addition to housing research collections, will increasingly be seen by our users as collaborative spaces. Spaces where students gather to work on papers and presentations, to access technology, and to obtain assistance with their academic pursuits, to both access and create information. Our library will house many service areas, such as the Effective Writing Centre and Academic Computing Support, that are not traditionally thought of as library-related. Going back to your earlier questions about Web 2.0 -

I suspect that front-line librarians will less frequently answer research questions, and more frequently deal with technology-related questions. I guess I'll predict the eventual demise of the traditional reference desk, and that it will be replaced by an information desk, probably not staffed by professional librarians, and that in-depth research questions will be handled on an individual appointment basis. More content will be made available online of course, and students will continue to access libraries virtually, and will expect to be able to obtain assistance virtually as well.

We're going to have a challenge to remain relevant in the eyes of our funders and users. Users appreciate us, but only when they think of us, which doesn't seem often.

Do you have any ideas on how to market the importance of librarians, and increase awareness so even more people can appreciate librarians?

I really wish I did! Many public libraries seem to be doing good marketing to teens to get them to appreciate libraries, but not so much librarians. We're exploring placing library service-related ads in Facebook. Our reference desk statistics have really dropped off over the past year or so, and we're considering following the lead of several other academic libraries who have started scattering librarians with laptops to various spots around campus where students gather. We've had librarians embedded in several faculties for several years now, and those librarians have been able to forge good relationships with faculty members and students. Getting ourselves in front of our patrons, either virtually or physically, seems to be the key. If they see us, they use and appreciate us. Marketing does not seem to be a strong point for libraries, and it needs to be.

What about for libraries with smaller budgets?

I don't think anything I've mentioned really requires much money - it's the ideas that seem to be scarce. Libraries with smaller budgets can't build big collections, but they can build collections their patrons want and need. To do that they need to know their community. The collection needs to speak to the community, and the services need to be relevant to the community. I've heard of small public libraries going out to record and digitize the personal histories of people in their neighborhood. While there are equipment and training costs, they don't have to be large, and there are many places where such information can be stored and made available online for a nominal cost. Heck, a library could start a collection of personal histories on YouTube or Viddler. Get the local newspaper to cover it. Get the grandkids to watch and learn from it. Make the library the central gathering point, and show the kids how they can use the resources in the library to learn more about what Grandpa did in the War. Show Grandpa how to post his own narratives to a video sharing site, or to a blog. Augment those sites with information from the library. Show how Web 2.0 can be enhanced with information from the good old library, with the help of good old librarians.

Thank you Paul for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. You can keep up with Paul about the ins and outs of Distance Librarianship at his blog, The Distant Librarian.

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