Raymond Barber - Future of Librarians Interview

Raymond Barber is editor of The Senior High Core Collection at H.W. Wilson and is a collections editor at Standard Catalogs, but for readers who may not know you, could you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background?

My first library job was as a page in a large urban public library while I was in high school. I quickly realized that I had found what I wanted to do in life. I continued to work there through college, having the opportunity to work in every department except on the bookmobiles. Finishing my library science degree, I took a job as a school librarian for what I thought would be one year, working in a junior high school and part-time in the public library as a young adult specialist.

After a number of years I was offered an opportunity to do advanced study. I chose to study School Administration and Library Management so I could quote the same studies back at school administrators. Having my degree I went on to head an experimental school library and then to teach library science. Before H.W. Wilson I was the administrator in a prep school library.

Now let's pretend for a minute that you were not involved in libraries. How do you personally use the library and look for information?

I use many libraries in a variety of ways each week. I take elderly people to the main library on Saturdays. I use the library science collection at Drexel University and the book and periodical collections at a variety of libraries, and there are remote libraries I visit via computer. When I am in a library I usually use books, but when I am at home working I use the web.

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

Librarians are the most useful thing in the library. With information available from so many sources, knowledegable informational professionals are a must to help navigate the book and web resources. When I visit the public library on Saturday, I pass long rows of people at computers. Some are searching for jobs, some playing games, some searching for information or word processing and, yes - a few are even visiting sites that the filter should not have allowed.

Most of these people have one thing in common; they don't have access to a computer or resources at home. Space and resources are valuable. One suburban library I use has multiple book discussion groups from romance novels to global economics. Libraries have space for community groups and discussions.

What are the most useless features of libraries today?

I am afraid that some librarians are not much help. They need to be proactive in helping people. Most are, but a few sit at the desk and ignore people in front of the desk. I see libraries with new self-checkout systems, very efficient. But I worry about the loss of personal contact between librarian and patron. We should be efficient and at the same time maintain that personal touch. I am also concerned that at some libraries, the book selection has been turned over almost totally to a central office or a jobber. While I edit a "core collection" selection tool, I know that there are some resources that almost every library should have, but also that every library is also unique. I hope the High School Core Collection provides both.

Librarians need to be proactive for their patrons. Beset by countless problems and challenges every day, it is easy to become consumed by them. Sit back once a month and think about the patron and ways to make their library experience one of the high points of their week.

What are the biggest challenges to libraries, and librarians' jobs?

The world is changing so fast and there are so many challenges every day it is easy for the librarian in the trenches to just survive and not flourish; to think of the latest technology as an attack not an opportunity to play, to grow, to expand. Set aside sometime to "play" with ideas. Librarians have become more fragmented. Many seldom talk to another type of librarian or visit a different type of library. ALA has fostered this insularity by sponsoring divisional conferences. How can we gain in knowledge from these and, at the same time, build solidarity and vision as a profession? Attend a conference or a workshop for another type of library and regularly look at the journal for that type of library. It gives one a new perspective and provides new ideas.

Our biggest challenge is that we will become marginalized in the new wikiworld. It is hard to compete with the convenience of Wikipedia, Google, Amazon.com., etc. We need to examine each of these and figure out how to add them to our arsenal of tools, what aspects to incorporate into our services and how to involve users in determining when each is the best strategy to use. Telling people not to use Wikipedia is rather like King Canute ordering the tide not to come in. In this new environment we need to recognize how people are going to behave and cooperate with them to work out new ways to access and evaluate knowledge.

Yet we have the traditional values and skills that are most needed. Provide many, many subject headings for books and other information sources making them Google-like. Add tables of contents to catalog records. Users want to type in a word and find a list of specific pieces of information. Subject heading structures, while important and useful to us are often irrelevant to our users. We librarians, information specialists, need these formalities - but tagging, note fields in records, and other tools we can invent will augment these.

On the faculty at Drexel, we debated changing the name of the school to reflect that we were concerned with information as well as libraries. Eugene Garfield, from ISI, spoke suggesting that we become the School of Infotecture and train infotecs. The faculty did not seriously consider this, but I immediately became an infotec. Like architects, infotecs build structures for people in live in, but for us these are structures allowing people to live in a world of information. Allow tagging of records like PennTag and foster online discussion groups and communities. Take a look at LibraryThing, play with it and then think about your catalog and users. Revel in the opportunities provided by new technologies. Foster links in your communities and with other allied professional organizations. It is a great time to be a librarian. Carpe diem.

In my last position I always put aside 10 percent of the materials budget to allow myself and my staff to experiment. We became one of the first school libraries in Pennsylvania to have a network, the first to be wireless, the first to use a PDA to access the catalog. Twenty years ago we experimented with a form of tagging and adding jacket art to our catalog through an Apple Library of Tomorrow grant and decided that the technology was not quite ready for this. I grew, the staff grew and the library slowly evolved. Be sure that while you grow that your staff grows and even surpasses you.

What are your thoughts on Library 2.0, and the future of libraries?

First of all I think it important that we remember that the values outlined in Library 2.0 are those we have always held at the heart of the profession: service, involving users in selection, communication. What we have now are the new tools provided by technology which allow us to come closer to our ideals. We need to be careful that we do not become enamored with tools at the expense of those we serve. And remember that you can't do everything at once. We librarians have always known about the "long tail," only we called it interlibrary loan. Now we can find information and materials for those we serve.

Blogs are not me. I started one, but the time it took robbed me of time to do what I do best. Read, research, think about new ways to do things, and be a good librarian. When I have something to communicate I have two websites at my command, my obligation is to make these the best tools for librarians that they can be. I have a long way to go, but I have come a long way in the last year.

Thank you Raymond for sharing your insight and experience with us. Be sure to check out Raymond's projects at Standard Catalogs and School Libraries!

Customize Your Education