The Guardian’s regressed a bit on its recent good record on library stories that show an understanding of what the profession really does. It lists librarians as under threat from new technology, along with city traders, military pilots and IT administrators.
A piece in its Saturday ‘Work’ section outlines technology that is taking the place of skilled professionals – even lawyers, it suggests, quoting ‘software used to process… legal documents at a fraction of the time and expense’.
It says that the library profession – public and academic, mainly – is threatened by e-books and self-service RFID, which suggests that the writer thinks a librarian’s role is limited to the date stamping of physical books.
(It also mentions a threat from Wikipedia and Google, but I can’t be bothered to rehash the arguments against this, we all know them by now.)
It obviously hasn’t occurred to them that public libraries lend e-books too, never mind academic librarians’ years of dealing with online journals and other digital material.
As you’ll know, Amazon announced last month that it’s allowing its Kindle e-reader to be used with library-loaned e-books (although just in the US, for now). The Kindle is the top-selling e-reader, so this is good news for libraries as I think, along with many other commentators, that e-book lending is a way to stimulate business.
People can’t get attached to e-books, and so are more likely to see the attraction of borrowing them from their library as opposed to buying them. Who wants to own a stream of digital characters?
And the many people who still get pleasure from owning the print-book can buy one as well, perhaps after reading it on loan from the library.
Building e-book collections still needs the professional librarian to go through the usual acquisition tasks – so how is this a threat to their job? Discoverability is more complicated than for print books. Other challenging aspects are maintaining records, dealing with unreliable metadata and standards, and taking part in the ongoing discussions between publishers and libraries about what terms and on what sort of model e-books should be supplied.
As for RFID, many libraries that have installed it are keen to point out that it frees library assistants from the repetitive job of stamping books in and out, which isn’t part of the library professional’s job anyway. Library assistants, on the other hand, can take up more rewarding and fulfilling tasks such as offering advice and information.
The thriving new Newcastle City Library is 99 per cent self-service. Staff work in a ‘proactive’ way, approaching visitors, and they say that this has allowed a friendly, professional relationship to develop. My teenaged niece took me there on a visited last month, and I saw the system in action.