Need for change (Was: dates)

Posting to NGC4LIB

On 29/07/2011 01:52, Alexander Johannesen wrote:

You need to do something big and drastic, and all you #$&^%#$*& care about are the minutea of AACR2, the stupidity of RDA, the generally incomprehensibly FRBR, and all the warts of MARC. At no point have you said, hey, how about we come up with a new and crazy way to create reliable meta data? Or how to deal with digital resources? Or what does access mean in a digital economy? What does it mean to fund a library in a global information market-space?


You all got library degrees. Are they relevant to what you want to do?

Of course, I agree. The situation for libraries is truly serious and all trends point to it getting worse. It kind of reminds me of a news clip I saw several years ago, when a French village was being flooded. The video showed the huge wave rolling through the village, washing away cars and the smaller buildings but on top of one building (whose foundations looked as if they were eroding away) was an old woman sweeping and sweeping her patio! Obviously she was terrified, but had no idea what to do except–sweep her patio.

Librarians have to show that they are relevant and they have to do it soon since the economic/information environment is changing very, very quickly. Our relevance is no longer taken as a given. In this regard, I heard this fellow speak at a conference about “Perfecting the Irrelevant” and his example of the Smith Corona typewriter impressed me. Here is the story and I suggest everyone read and think about it:

To me, so much of what the current library initiatives have in mind are different variations of this “perfecting the irrelevant.” We *must* discover what is relevant to society today and fit ourselves in, and not to assume–or rather convince ourselves because we won’t convince anybody else–that the solution to our societal relevance is to provide our users with the FRBR user tasks. Again, where is the evidence for such an outrageous conclusion? I still haven’t seen it, although I have seen all kinds of evidence for other powers and abilities they want and expect. Therefore, FRBR and RDA are fabulous examples of perfecting the irrelevant. Even if we could wave our magic wands like Harry Potter and somehow get WEMI to work right now, today, does anybody really, seriously believe that it would make any substantial difference to our patrons and they would exclaim “Yes! Yes! This is what I’ve always been missing!” Why? And when we begin to consider the so-called tiny “changes” with RDA; how they will make any difference to any of our users, and the significant labor and costs it means for us, that image of the old French woman furiously sweeping her patio pops into my mind again.

Figuring out how librarians and what they make are relevant to today’s society–as I firmly believe we can do since we actually provide services found nowhere else–will not be a simple task though, and it will be a humbling experience, I am sure. Many of our most cherished beliefs will be shown false I am sure, but our field will be stronger for it. What should the library catalog do today? What should reference services be? What does selection mean today? Asking these questions seriously will inevitably lead to painful answers, but it is necessary. The only way to find out a lot of this is to do as Alex says and experiment.

But libraries are bureaucratic and it is very difficult to justify experiments and development, because experiment and development assume the possibility of failure. An idea may not work out and therefore “be a  waste”, which is tough to justify, especially today. Of course, just as nothing is a “100% success” nothing is a “100% failure” and all attempts are steps along the same road. False paths are just as valuable as true ones, so long as others know about the false path; otherwise they will make the same mistakes.

Still, this is a very disheartening time for libraries. On the bright side, once we do show that we are relevant and vital to our societies, as I am sure we will, the funding will come. Of that, I have no doubt.