Plinius

Saturday, January 26, 2008

PL 1/08: Librarians in the knowledge economy

Filed under: BOBCATSSS, education — Tags: — plinius @ 9:41 am

Introduction

The role of libraries, the content of librarianship and the professional identity of librarians are changing. Based on our experiences as a library student (Kari Frodesen) and a library teacher (Tord Høivik) at the main library school in Norway, we here try to describe and to explain what is happening – so that the profession can be better prepared for future change.

Librarians are now exposed to deep and challenges at the core of their profession. The internet revolution is transforming all institutions engaged in the production and dissemination of written documents and knowledge. We feel that the response from the library field has been too slow and hesitant. Since we share the same feeling of urgency, we have decided to prepare a joint paper on the future of librarianship. We want to identify the barriers to change – and ways of overcoming them.

But our backgrounds and perspectives are not identical. Kari Frodesen is a former manager in the ICT field. Tord Høivik is a statistician and sociologist with a strong interest in the impact of technology on social organizations. We will therefore conduct the workshop as a dialogue rather than in a single voice.

Libraries in the knowledge economy

Libraries are old. But as an organized profession, librarianship only goes back to the late 19th century. Melvil Dewey set up the first library school – The Columbia School in Library Economy – in New York in 1884. In the first part of the 20th century, many Norwegian librarians got their professional training in the United States. The Norwegian library school was established in Oslo after World War II.

Today, most librarians are still trained in Oslo. But the school is no longer a separate institution. In 1994 more than twenty vocational colleges in the Oslo region were combined into one educational establishment. Similar reorganizations were carried out in all Norwegian counties (fylker). We are moving from an industrial to a knowledge-based economy, and the government wanted a coherent and unified system of higher education.

The new production of knowledge takes place on a global rather than a national scale. In 1950, only a small minority – less than five percent – had access to tertiary education. Today, the countries of Europe need large groups of highly educated professionals to run their post-industrial societies and to compete effectively on the global market. In Norway, demographers predict that more than fifty percent of the young will complete one or more years of higher education during their career.

Relative rankings

Globalization and mass education change the social environment in which libraries must survive and operate. The social division of labour implies a rank order between professions. Rank is closely correlated with length of training. As the average level of education increases, the traditional three-year library degree looses in relative value. To remain in the “same place”, librarians must aim at 5 year master rather than 3 year bachelor degrees. This implies, however, a painful change of professional identity.

If “fully accredited librarians” have master degrees, those with less are placed in a subordinate position. In Norway, the need for longer studies in the future has been widely accepted. But there has been no public discussion of concrete steps and strategies needed to achieve a redefinition. Change will not come by itself. It can be promoted or delayed. Both choices carry risks: of internal conflict in the first case; of sinking status, in the second.

The core of the profession

A prolonged training period is not a full solution, however. Digital technology represents a challenge to the procedures and practices that define librarianship itself. The profession needs qualitative as well as quantitative change. Libraries tend to be conservative institutions. Their social task has been to preserve the publications of the past for reuse in the future. The unique competences that distinguish librarians from other professions are related to the management of document collections. Librarianship without knowledge organization and retrieval (KOR) is Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.

The concrete tasks associated with this core – each with their own techniques, traditions and procedures – are typically such specific subjects as cataloguing, classification, indexing, abstracting – and document, subject and factual retrieval. These operations are carried out on individual documents, or on selected sets of documents. At the aggregate level, librarians study the proper management of collections and may also learn about the design and maintenance of document management systems.

The core subjects of librarianship, we would argue, are utterly transformed by the World Wide Web. The Web represents a new historical mode of text production. In order to survive, libraries and library services must establish sustainable positions in a web-based division of labour. Change does not happen overnight, but all library students that are educated today, must cope with the impact of the Web during their future professional careers.

We will not argue this case. The challenge to the profession is well documented elsewhere. Our concern is the weakness of the response. What is at stake? How can the inertia be explained?

The Norwegian library landscape

Here we may turn to Bourdieu.

Libraries and librarianship constitute a social field with its own actors, interests, strategies, values, hierarchies and competition for influence and positions. The field in its current form – in Norway as in Europe – reflects the predominance of printed texts in the production (and reproduction) of knowledge. Libraries are print institutions – and are widely perceived as institutions devoted to books (codexes) rather than other forms of printed texts.

The Norwegian library sector is divided between public and institutional libraries. The public sector comprises 430 independent municipal libraries – as well as the eighteen county libraries that support them. The institutional sector includes our National library, about seventy libraries in higher education, about one hundred and fifty special libraries financed by the government, a few dozen private special libraries and several thousand school libraries. The few hundred libraries in secondary schools are relatively large and staffed by trained librarians. The three thousand libraries in primary schools are small and mostly staffed – for a few hours weekly – by local teachers.

Norwegian library debates tend to be dominated by the public library sector. These libraries are largely autonomous. Most are small: three quarters of the municipalities have less than ten thousand inhabitants. They serve the general public (the electorate, no less!) and share many political interests. Taken as a group, the heads and department heads of these four hundred libraries constitute a formidable professional block. Most are highly committed to their local communities.

The role of public libraries is vague and open-ended – so library work is never fully done. Much of the work is invisible to the outside world. The staff complains about too many tasks and too little time. Being small, they often lack the resources and the specialized staff that are required to develop new institutional roles. The exceptional fragmentation of the Norwegian library landscape is clearly a barrier to change.

The impact of Web 2.0

At the same time, being small and independent has its advantages. It is the smaller libraries, in the public and the institutional sector, that have taken the lead when it comes to blogging. The lack of editorial responsibility and control is more scary in larger organizations. More generally, Web 2.0 makes new types of publication, presentation, distribution and knowledge organization technically accessible to any librarian with a stout heart and a standard computer.

The technologies behind Web 2.0 are not, as such, very new or exceptional. But Web 2.0 is revolutionary in its social impact. Those who start using 2.0-services on a regular basis are, in fact, remaking their professional identities. Repeated interaction with blogs, flickr, FaceBook, LibraryThing and World of warfare work like physical exercise. Their habitual responses, which are located in the physical body, changes. To practice Web 2.0 is to assimilate, to integrate and ultimately to become – a somewhat different person with a somewhat different habitus. We become what we do.

Web 2.0 encourages participants to produce as well as consume. Consumption is passive. Production is active. The Web is a complex place. As a producer you constantly have to solve new practical problems – most of them small (but very irritating!) – to achieve your goals. Learning by doing, in other words. The Web is also a cooperative place. People share solutions and resources and tend to be generous with their time and expertise. The Web mostly works as a vast gift economy (Titmuss). The Web is a major challenge to the future role of libraries. But in terms of culture, web citizens and librarians should get along nicely. Both avoid the cash nexus, with its naked exchange of goods for money.

Central or local digitization

There are, however, competing digitization strategies at the national level – which lead to different conceptions of the library sector in the future (1.0 versus 2.0). This becomes clear if compare official statements and other documents from the National Library, on the one hand, and from the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority, on the other.

The differences reflect, we believe, the different positions of the two organizations within the library field rather than individual differences of professional opinion.

Library curricula

Professional identities are largely constructed through formal schooling. It is useful to take a critical look at the current curriculum of library studies in Oslo. Both curricula and strategic documents are intended as plans for action. They can be read as simple texts on paper, but they are meant to be implemented. They commit, in other words, the organizations that produce them to specific actions in the future.

When organizations write, they tend to choose a bland and neutral style. The waters stay calm and the reader can rest. But people on the inside know very well that the content of official documents represents compromises. The final texts derive from a combination of internal discussions and internal relationships of power. The heated arguments and the tense struggles are simply hidden from view.

We can only understand a field like librarianship in scientific terms if we go behind the presentations that people and organizations are prone to offer. We must undo the “face work” (Goffman) to reveal the interests and conflicts that structure social behaviour in all social systems. This does not mean that surface presentations should be dismissed. But they should not be believed on their own terms. Systematic skepticism is the first rule of science.

Changing library curricula reflect both changing understandings and changing power constellations in the teaching institutions. The current version must, by the rule of the institutional game, be presented as a suitable, consensual and natural adaptation to the current set of circumstances. The text is authoritative in the practical sense, since it defines – grosso modo – what should be taught and how. Many students also tend to take it as authoritative in a professional sense, since it seems to define the content and limits of librarianship in Norway in 2007.

But we must separate social appearance from social reality. The library curriculum is just an official text produced by a disparate collective of teachers. The social reality of librarianship is just a small social field among many, many others. Both are social constructs – two of the infinite number of games people play (Berne) in sorrow, anger or delight.

To learn something new, we must contrast the text with the field and ask: does this curriculum respond adequately to the processes that are currently transforming the field?

1 Comment »

  1. […] For those who wish to prepare – or to explore further – we will add some relevant web resources (to be listed here). We start with the following background paper on The professional role of librarians on the new knowledge economy. […]

    Pingback by PL 38/07: The professional role of librarians « Pliny the Librarian — Saturday, January 26, 2008 @ 9:45 am


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