T. Scott - Future of Librarians Interview

T. Scott Plutchak is the blogger behind T. Scott. But for readers who may not know you, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?

Sure, I'm currently the director Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and I've been here for a little over a dozen years. My early background was all undergrad humanities and philosophy so it was really by accident that I ended up going into medical librarianship. I ended up applying for a post graduate fellowship that the National Library of Medicine holds and spent a year there from '83-'84. I stayed on at NLM for a couple of years and was really taken with the challenges that I think are particular to academic health sciences libraries. I decided that that's where I wanted to try to spend my time, so I went to St. Louis University as associate director and then director, was there for about 7 years, and then came down here. In general the things that I've become interested in range from IP to library management issues, and thinking through where are we going as librarians at this time of particular change.

What were the challenges you saw with academic health libraries?

During my fellowship year, I spent a week at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, where I really got to see some things in depth. I think the key difference between medical librarians and the rest of academic librarians is urgency, because you are dealing with health issues. So there is a certain passion to medical librarians that I responded well to.

At the end of the day, everything we do leads to the health of an individual human being. There are lots of examples of hospital libraries getting calls from the operating room needing them to look up some kind of information really quickly, so I think part of the reason for the early adoption of computer technology was because there was a recognition that we do need to apply all of the available tools at hand to deal with the pressing medical issues of the day. That continues to inform what we do.

Can you talk more about technology in medical libraries?

In the early 80s when I was just getting into libraries, medical libraries tended to be about a decade or so ahead of the rest of library land in terms of the use of technology. And this was entirely because of work that had been done at the NLM in the 60s and a lot of federal money got pumped into really developing a good network of medical libraries around the country. There was a very robust national interlibrary loan system that was set up at a time when trying to do ILL through OCLC was still incredibly clunky and slow.

Do you see academic medical libraries being a vanguard to other libraries and their adoptions of technology?

Yes and no. Yes in that I think that there are a lot of very smart, tech-savvy people in medical libraries; some of the angst that I see reflected on library blogs, from libraries in other sectors, reflects frustration from what they see as a slowness in adopting technology. I just don't see that in academic medical libraries.

On the other hand, I think we are not as much of a vanguard as we might be, because there is relatively little interaction between medical librarians and general academic librarians. This is really just an historical artifact - back around 1900, the Medical Library Association set itself up as a separate entity. We go to our own meetings, and even on campuses that have both a medical library and a general academic library, there is often relatively little contact between those two groups, because of the nature of medical schools. So I think that there are lots of things happening in academic medical libraries that could serve as examples, and would be useful to people who are wrestling with some of these issues in general, but we tend to just talk to ourselves. We're not the kind of example that we could be because we don't make ourselves as visible to the rest of the world.

That said, some tech services librarians in health sciences will attend ALA because there's a perception that the quality of the programming for tech services librarians is better, but that's still relatively a small number.

Do you think more medical librarians should get involved outside the medical library association?

Yeah, I think they should. I see no signs that very many are going to. I've been fortunate in Alabama in that at the time I got here there was a lot of work being done to bring librarians from different sectors together in order to establish what became the Alabama Virtual Library, which is state funded electronic database licensing. That gave me a lot more contact with other librarians than I had previously, and I tried to keep up some of those relationships. There are a couple places where I see more connections. I see more medical librarians going to the Charleston Conference, and other cases, but overall there's just not as much back-and-forth as I think would be useful.

Part of the problem is just time and energy. I think I've been to a couple ALA mid-winter meetings, I've been to one ACRL meeting, but as it is I tend to be so busy that I end up having to be selective of what I participate in.

At this point it looks like more of a personal effort than anything, no real cultural impetus to integrate.

MLA has liaison relationships with other library associations and we participate with the other library associations in various lobbying and advocacy activities. But I think that's about as far as it goes. And different campuses operate differently. There are places where the academic medical library may report to a general campus library, and that may create opportunities for there to be more interaction among the staff of those libraries. Although I know a lot of places where because of the nature of the institution the medical campus is often relatively separate from the rest of the campus regardless of what the representation structure may be.

So if you were president of the MLA, what steps would you take to make medical libraries more of a guiding influence in terms of technology?

I think there is an opportunity via blogs, wikis, etc, to break down some of those barriers. Mark Funk from the Cornell Medical Library is the incoming president for the MLA; he made the use of social networking tools and sites a major priority for his year, although primarily his focus is still on using them to provide more opportunities for Medical Librarians to interact with each other, as oppose to interacting outside. There are a number of good library blogs written by medical librarians that discuss all the same issues that others are. So I think we may start to get some of that cross-fertilization happening.

Within the medical context, how are wikis and Web 2.0/Library 2.0 technology working with the users of Medical academic libraries.

I suspect that we're seeing much of the same kind of thing that you're seeing across different library sectors, the same sorts of experimentation, trying to put some thing out, trying to see what are the tools that people actually respond to. One of the things that I think happens is happening right now in terms of medical libraries is because our primary population tends to skew slightly older than the general undergraduate population, I think you're just really starting to see a lot of Facebook activity for example, because you have to get the undergraduate population that really got involved in that up and out and into medical school.

So I don't know that there's anything particularly distinctive about the kinds of experiments people are doing in libraries. I think the larger difference, and this is very hard to evaluate, is that in medical libraries, I don't see the kinds of resistance to implementing and experimenting with technology that there seems to be in other libraries, based on what I hear. But I don't know how accurate those perceptions are, because it's easy to find examples of innovative libraries of all types, be it academic or public or whatever - there are obviously many very exciting, interesting things going on there.

So when I read comments from somebody who tends to paint with a very broad brush about the dismal state of libraries, I tend to be suspicious that they're unhappy in their place and so they're making claims about the general state of libraries that aren't really supported. I just don't think things are really as bad across the board as some people would seem to think.

And certainly not in MLA.

Where we seem to see more difficulties in terms of implementing technology are hospital libraries. While those librarians would like to do more, the IT staff in the hospital will often block social networking sites and Internet access because of security concerns. But it's not the librarians themselves - often it's the librarians at hospitals who are the most tech-savvy and would like to do the most innovation - but it's the barriers that their IT folks are putting up. Among the 130 academic medical libraries, I really can't think of one in which there would be real resistance to experimenting with technology.

You've blogged about how research and the outcome of task forces, etc, might be affected by the transparency provided by social software.

The question is how to make the best use of Web 2.0 tools to achieve transparency, but still get stuff done. A parallel that I could use is this: when I was editor of the Journal of the Medical Library Association, which I did for six years, the topic would come up every couple of years about whether or not we should move to a more open peer reviewing system. Currently under the system that has been in place for a very long time, the authors do not know the names of the reviewers and the reviewers do not know the names of the authors, so it's a very traditional double-blind system.

In the research that's been done on peer review, it's very hard to say that a more open peer review system produces better results than a closed system, because it's a very difficult area to study. But there are a lot of people making compelling arguments that there is sort of a social benefit to having reviewers really have to put their names on their reviews and be more comfortable with the comments and criticisms they make. I think many people who served on the editorial board over the years might have agreed with that stance theoretically, but we were never able to get more than a couple who were really willing to put themselves on the line. The argument was always that more visibility might make it more difficult to be as critical as you need to be. In terms of committee work, I can see the possibility that people would be hesitant to maybe participate in as open a fashion if they knew that every time they said something it was going to be potentially specifically criticized.

So I think there is a human element there that we haven't really sorted out in terms of what all this technology does. I think that even keeping a blog individually puts some of that pressure on people. I know I felt much freer when I started mine out and I didn't really think that anybody was reading it. Now, as I've said in previous posts, I know that my mother reads it. I know that there are people who work for me who read it every day. And to a certain extent that inhibits what I'm willing to say in the blog, because I don't want to inadvertently give the wrong impression to people who work for me about the things that I might be thinking about, or things that I might be planning. So I think there are a lot of those kinds of human factor things that we don't fully understand how they'll work, - whether you're talking about using a blog to reach out to your community, using it internally or, in the case of an organization, using it to open discussions up to the wider membership.

I tend to think that overall more transparency is better, and that we should really push ourselves as an association and as individual members to be as open about these things as we can. But I think that there will be some limitations. One thing I hadn't even considered until a discussion that we had on the board was that as a member of the board of directors, I have certain legal responsibilities to support the official decisions of the board. Boards operate in a way that you're supposed to be able to have all your disagreements privately within the board. Once a decision is made, everybody on the board is expected to be able to support that decision. And there are legal ramifications to that.

So the question is: what happens to that kind of traditional legal apparatus or board of directors when you have the opportunity to open those discussions up more widely? Our executive director has had a number of conversations with the association lawyer, trying to sort through how we meet our legal responsibilities, and at the same time become more open about those discussions.

How is Library 2.0, if you accept that term, or Web 2.0, technology in general - how is it changing librarians' roles?

Well, first of all to address the "if" there, I think that Web 2.0 is a useful term and it actually does apply; it is definable and somewhat useful in conversation. I think Library 2.0 is a terrible term and should absolutely be banished. It is indiscriminately applied to whatever the person using it sort of foggily thinks it applies to. So, since no two people really use the term in the same way there's no way that it can really be useful in professional discourse. I think it's lousy.

Having said that, there are two areas in which the term is most often applied. One is in the strictly technology sense, which is where it's more related to Web 2.0. And there you're talking about forms of technology that make it easier to interact on a broad scale over a network.

The other area is many people apply the term library 2.0 as sort of a paradigm of libraries that are more supportive of change, that are willing to be innovative, and that are less controlled and change resistant than libraries have been in the past. I'm particularly annoyed by the latter use of the term Library 2.0, because I don't think that libraries have been resistant to change. I think libraries have always been very innovative, have always been willing to try new things, have always adopted and adapted to new technology and I think that will continue.

Right now people are enamored of blogs and wikis and Facebook and this sort of thing. But that's this year's set of technology. Five years from now we'll be talking about a whole different set of things. I don't see anything particularly remarkable or revolutionary about the current set of tools in terms of our ability to use them, try to implement them and use whatever is related to them out there, in order to be better librarians.

Where I think there is a very fundamental issue that I don't think has been discussed as well as it should, is the fact that moving into a digital world, regardless of the sets of technologies, means that our notions of what a collection is are really outdated. And that our notion of our jobs as supporting libraries is very outdated. So what I would prefer to see is that as librarians we should be acknowledging what seems to be the self evident fact that "libraries" are in fact becoming less important and less relevant, and that's okay. Because the Internet gives us bigger and broader tools, and we should be focusing on what "librarians" do, and on the multitude of ways in which we can do more, and do better, to connect people to resources of all kinds. But we get caught up in worrying about "libraries"and we often talk as if "libraries" and "librarians" are synonymous - they're not. So I think in many ways all of the Library 2.0 stuff that I see is really the wrong conversation.

More like Librarian 2.0?

The thing that bugs me the most about putting the number on it is it seems to indicate that there's been some fundamental break with the past. I just see it as the latest evolution in something that goes back thousands of years.

I've suggested that online, librarians can be something similar to moderators on a forum or Wikipedia. That said, a lot of people can update and read Wikipedia on their own. So why do we still need librarians?

I think that librarians bring a particular skillset and a particular way of understanding how information is organized and transferred that enables us to serve in a very important consultancy role. You never needed a librarian in order to read, or in order to go to a bookstore, or in order to find sources in print. On the other hand, working with a librarian could make you far more efficient and effective at getting to where you wanted to go. I think that is even more important now, when the variety of resources are so hugely vast.

At my library we are much more fundamentally in the curriculum and working with the students than we were 10-15 years ago. The faculty recognizes that the challenges faced by students in dealing with this incredibly information-rich world are much more complicated than they used to be. Over at the clinic we've set up a patient library, which was never a high priority to the clinic in the print world. Now, however, there are so many ways in which patients can get information, so having a really good guide to work through that becomes more important. The public library in the little suburb of Birmingham where I live is really re-inventing itself as a whole community center and has a whole variety of programs, many of which are still fundamentally built around books and reading, but which encompass a whole variety of other activities.

The way that I have phrased it on occasion is that the job of the librarian is - and always has been - to bring people into contact with the recorded knowledge and wisdom of their culture. And in the print world the best way to do that was by building a great big print collection. Now, in the electronic world, we don't need to do that anymore. So the library as a place for a collection isn't as important as it was. But the fundamental need that society still has - to have specialists who are focused on the processes and the ways in which people get that connection with their cultural history or with current knowledge, that remains a critical social need in every society. And that's the fundamental thing that librarians do. We make a fundamental mistake when we think that the job of librarians is to take care of libraries. Libraries are just a tool.

Could the term "librarian" be updated?

Oh, I'm very opposed to that. I think that "librarian" has a rich history. It is unique in terms of what it does, and it's completely wrongheaded when some parts of the movement say say "oh, 'librarian' is no longer a useful term we need to call ourselves something else."

You mentioned how the change from print-based to digital information is actually creating new physical spaces such as the patient center. That's interesting because one would imagine that with everything online no one really needs a building anymore. Can you comment more on what technology is doing to physical library space?

People are still physical beings. And people still need to interact physically. And as I said at a presentation I gave a while back, Second Life does not replace First Life. All of these tools are a useful way to reach out, but the in-person contact is still essential. On a university campus, having that connection with students and faculty is still really essential. Now we we need to spend a lot more time going out and spending more time out of the building. But then we do still have this wonderful piece of real estate that we can re-think in terms of how we make use of it, to make it a place where people can come to collaborate. Or perhaps people can come to use technologies that are more cutting edge, not the kind of thing the student's going to own on their own.

Our study rooms are as busy as ever. We do have lecture programs in my library, we have a little museum, a rare book collection which remains important - so I think if you look at what is happening, particularly among academic libraries as they're thinking about how do they those spaces to promote learning, there are lots of exciting things that can be done. Many communities are still investing a lot of money in their public libraries, in building new public library buildings, but again, thinking in different ways about how to use them to bring communities of people together.

Again, the fallacy in the notion that we don't need the buildings anymore is the notion that the only thing the library did was house physical stuff. But libraries of all types have always been more than that. What we have an opportunity to do now, since physical demands for housing a collection are going to be lessening, is an opportunity to focus more on all of those other things that we have done to bring members of the community together in important ways. So the library buildings will continue to be important. They're just not the only place you need to go to get information anymore.

Would you say they're the only physical spaces, or what other sorts of physical spaces will people be going to for information and how can librarians interact in those?

Well, any place you can get connected to the web - which now is anyplace - people can get information. What you can get in the library building is often a critical mass of people who have a particular interest or have a particular area of expertise.

Similar to a school?

I think "similar to a school," is narrowing it too much. Similar to a community center. Or a research environment. Similar to the lounge in a dorm. Surveys have shown that, in many institutions, students really want to go to the library because a well-designed library is a comfortable place; it's got a kind of intellectual energy that no place else on campus has. It's a place to get out of the dorm when you want to get out, to both work with your fellow students, but also to find some quiet, contemplative space.

Standard dormitories, research labs, craftsmen buildings - all of those are intended to meet other functions that are complementary to the library, but the library provides a whole host of functions that no other building on campus does, and I would suggest that no other public building in a city does, besides a public library. But again I think the challenge of a librarian is to understand that while creating those physical spaces, which is an important part of what we do, it's no longer the sum total of what we do. We have to be looking for ways to be more involved with the community in all of the other places they are as well.

It's been a pleasure talking to you do you have any additional thoughts about the future of libraries, the current state of libraries or anything else we've touched upon?

I think it's a fabulous time to be a librarian and we should quite worrying about it so much.

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us today. You can keep up with T. Scott's thoughts at his blog.

Customize Your Education