Steven Bell - Future of Librarians Interview

Steven Bell started the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community, Designing Better Libraries, writes for the ACRLog and the column Pencils Never Crash, and is the co-author of the Academic Librarianship by Design, now available at the ALA store. He also keeps the Keeping Up Web Site and the Kept Up Academic Librarian, but for readers who might wish to get even more caught up, could you talk a little bit about your background and what you do?

My Ed.D is in higher education administration, so I'm a big advocate of academic librarians keeping up well with news and developments in higher education. I've been a librarian for 30 years, 20 of them in academic libraries. In January 2007, I started a new position as the Associate University Library for Research and Instructional Services at Temple University. Prior to that I was at Philadelphia University for 10 years where I was the Director of the Library. I present and publish on a regular basis.

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

I'd probably be using top brand search engines just like everyone else. But in college I really learned how to do historical research, and spent loads of time in academic and special libraries. So even if I wasn't a librarian I'd probably still be using libraries for research more so than the average citizen. Now, since I'm also interested in web technologies, I think there's be a good chance I'd be using social networks like del.icio.us to gather information from other people's bookmarking sites. I think there's a lot of search power in these new communication modes, and I like the idea of starting my research by discovering resources that others with similar interests have already bookmarked. I'm also a magazine fanatic, so if I wasn't already working in a library, I'd have to get to one on a regular basis to read my favorites.

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

Some experts might not agree, but from my perspective the most useful aspect of any library is the people who work there. That probably has never been truer than in today's expansive information landscape where an expert's guidance can make the difference between success and failure. I'm not just referring to professional librarians. A great library requires a great staff and that includes all of our support staff. Probably the most useful feature, from the point of view of the users is the vast electronic content in the form of aggregator databases and e-publications (journals, books, etc). Without their library many individuals would not be able to access these electronic resources. I'd also have to point to the library facility itself. A good one is going to be a center of social, cultural, and intellectual activity for the community, and there are few societal institutions left that can offer that combination. The library's contributions to its community cannot be ignored.

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

I've been writing recently about the traditional reference desk and why this profession should be considering eliminating them. I'm not suggesting we should eliminate reference services. What I am saying is it's time we began to question the value of having highly skilled librarians sitting at desks waiting for someone to ask a question. And often the questions being asked do not require a librarian's subject expertise. The first step in eliminating them is to explore other models for delivering knowledge services. It can be done as a mobile service, it can take the shape of a consultation service, and librarians could do more greeting and roaming in their buildings, and deliver reference service outside the library where the users are. All that said, it would still be useful to have at least one service desk where library users can get general information and get referrals to the subject specialists, but it's a question of who should be staffing that desk. Of course, each library has a different culture so how people respond to this can be a reflection of their own service environment. But the time has come to start giving this idea serious consideration. Some libraries already have.

What are your thoughts on Web 2.0 in libraries. What is it doing to librarians' roles?

As I've written previously I'm not that sure it matters what you call it, but it is something we need to acknowledge because of the way people interact with the web and website, and their expectations as information users. In my recent presentations I have been discussing three socio-tech trends related to Web 2.0.

First, the shift to the age of the user experience. When people use online sites they judge the quality of the experience by its simplicity; the simpler the better.

Second, and related to the first, is the simplicity-complexity conundrum. Libraries are tremendously challenged in the age of the user experience because of the inherent complexity of research itself and the tools designed to aid those conducting research. Hence librarians exist in an environment where people want simplicity but what they offer is a complex experience. We have to learn to resolve the conundrum.

Third, this is the age of peer production. In the world of the read-write web, individuals want to contribute their own content to the web. Library websites and resources are poorly designed for the age of peer production; we offer almost nothing to our users in the way of allowing them to add their content. So this is another huge challenge we face. If we can harness the power of some of the Web 2.0 resources, and enable our users to add their own content, that's going to help us succeed. So efforts to create blogs, podcasts, and wikis are useful, but ultimately will fail unless we open them up to our users and get their participation. That's something we need to work on.

Librarians need to shift their thinking about adopting these technologies in order to better connect with the library's users. That said, I advocate a balanced approach. Librarians need to explore the Web 2.0 technologies carefully to determine which offer the best return on the time investment. We can't just go about adopting them all because everyone else is. The big shift in our role, as resources diminish, is to have the ability to identify the right tools for the library community, and to creatively prototype and implement them and structure assessment strategies to determine how effective we are. A good example is integrating oneself and the library into a social network. It may work better for some than others, but the challenge is to use it creatively in some way beyond just setting up a profile that doesn't accomplish much. Whatever we do we should be assessing it to determine how our use of that time made a difference for our user community.

What is technology doing to physical library spaces?

Technology and users expectations for technology is forcing libraries to eliminate book warehouse space and to replace it with people spaces that are inviting and offer the kinds of technologies that people want. At the library I'm at now we are in the process of shifting many unused materials to a storage facility so that we can convert these spaces to small computer pods where users can do a variety of activities. Wireless is becoming ubiquitous in libraries (at least the academic libraries I'm familiar with) and users have expectations that they'll be able to compute and communicate wherever they are in the building.

What would you say is the single most important technology to librarians today?

It would have to be the Internet. It has become the essential conduit for the delivery of library content to the user community and the world at large, be it access to the OPAC, access to journals and databases, access to specialized digitized collections, and access to librarians via IM and chat reference. No Internet, no library for the vast majority of our user community. Other technologies such as link resolvers, metasearch, and institutional repositories are important for providing quality access to content for our users, but they wouldn't be of much value without basic access. The one technology that I think we do need to stay focused on is the handheld device. Whether its a PDA, a cell phone, a smartphone, or some other mobile communication devices, I think they will grow more sophisticated and we have to start now to be prepared for a world where users will expect to get any and all content delivered to their personal devices.

I'd certainly be remiss if I failed to mention webcasting technology because of the value it offers librarians seeking online professional development opportunities. At the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community, we have been offering free educational webcast events for over two years. Our members and non-members greatly value these learning opportunities. Now, other librarians and library associations are recognizing the value of web-based professional development programming. I think this is a critically important technology because there is no question in my mind that our future success (and existence quite possibly) depends on how good a job librarians do of keeping up with the latest technologies and information industry trends. If we just ignore these developments we will be contributing to our own obsolescence. Webcasts offer a great way for the majority of librarians to keep up in ways that are convenient and cost effective.

What do you think about the future of libraries, what will they look like, what direction are they going in?

Well there's no question the library is going to face a future of evolving technologies that will continue to transform the way our users find information, the tools they use to find it, and their expectation that they will be able to get the information they want at any time and wherever they happen to be at that moment. I could only guess at the types of information retrieval systems that will be developed over the next 10 or 20 years, but I would venture to say that it will depend less on keyword mechanisms and more on visualization and conceptualization. Search technologies will be much better at finding the information people need that results from the ability to visualize it or offer a basic mental concept of that information. Libraries and the companies that create our content resources will have to work together to stay relevant in such a world.

To my way of thinking, rather than trying to guess the future we should be working to shape our vision of a preferred future. For me, that is one where the library is well connected with and integrated into the teaching and learning process. In this vision librarians and their resources are essential components of the classroom, be it physical or virtual. We work with faculty collaboratively to develop a classroom that injects library research skills into content in assignments in ways that make the librarian transparent. Education will certainly change and more technology will be integrated into the transfer of knowledge. But I believe the basic elements of the classroom and the teacher-student dynamic will remain much the same and to remain relevant to society libraries and librarians will have to be well integrated into this environment. To a large extent, I and others are already moving in this direction. That's what the Blended Librarians Online Learning Community is largely all about, and with over 2,500 members to date, there are many other librarians who agree with our vision of the future.

Any additional thoughts about Library 2.0 and the future of libraries?

I prefer to focus the discussion on Web 2.0 rather than Library 2.0 because I'm still not sure what Library 2.0 is. I do have a better sense of what Web 2.0 is, how it has shifted the dynamic of the user experience on websites, and the importance of paying attention to these trends when developing library services and resources. I've been in this profession for over 20 years as an academic librarian and I can't recall a time when we were not exploring new and innovative technologies in order to better promote the library to our user community, and leverage those technologies to eliminate as many barriers to information access as possible. I think that is what we are still doing, but the technologies have changed and so have the user expectations. Web 2.0 is just one phase in an ongoing series of disruptive technologies that require libraries to re-think, re-engineer and re-purpose what we do and how we do it. I enjoy being a part of it all and having the opportunity through my writing to challenge conventional thinking and get my library colleagues to explore new ideas and new ways of doing things.

Thank you Steven for sharing your time and insight with us. Be sure to keep up with Steven Bell, or be kept up.

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