Here We Go Again!
By Barbara QuintJanuary/February 2013 Issue
OK, OK, Searcher is smaller as a section than it was as an independent publication. Even so, its light will burn in the darkness. That's why we've decided to name the entire section after my long-running editorial, Searcher's Voice. As my boss insists, the content will remain edgy.
And any potential authors out there should learn fast that this section will be the place for controversy and perilous truths to be told. (Speaking of telling, no reason to blab to Marydee Ojala, the editor-in-chief of the new pub. We don't want to suppress her spirits by warning her which part of the new magazine people will automatically turn to first. Heh, heh, heh.)
To prove that Searcher - even in miniature and renamed - has lost none of its edge, our main feature for this premier issue comes from the always controversial and perceptive Steve Coffman. Many, many months ago I commissioned Steve to write me an article on where libraries and librarians would go in an ideal future. The April 2012 issue of the old Searcher magazine carried his response to that commission. Instead of an ideal library future, the article, "The Decline and Fall of the Library Empire," described a digitally depressed past (www.infotoday.com/searcher/apr12/Coffman--The-Decline-and-Fall-of-the-Library-Empire.shtml). As usual, Steve's piece went viral and led to his getting speaking engagements on both hemispheres.
In this issue, I finally got something close to what I had asked him for, although it's still more of a survivalist approach than an optimistic visionary one, but very perceptive and rather realistic. (By the way, some of the statistics he covers indicate that the growth rate in ebook sales and readership has begun to level off. Interesting figures.) Overall his predictions indicate that any successful future for us will probably mean fewer, better librarians performing in fewer, better libraries or maybe for entirely nontraditional institutions.
As a contrarian, Steve always raises issues and images of the future that will hit some like a revelation and others like a punch in the face. One viewpoint that underlies all his observations, however, I think we all agree with-namely, that the key ethical principle of our profession is service to the client, getting them what they want and what they need first, last, and always.
To do that now and in the future will involve unified, networked action and strong centralized organization. As a profession, we must free ourselves of letting our own view of what needs doing and how best to do it be controlled by people outside our profession. We may have found it amusing and even useful in the past to hear clients tell us what they thought our professional lives were like. ("It must be wonderful to have all those books to read each day." My personal favorite came from a senior researcher, who, after overhearing two reference librarians talking about their library schools when placing his request for an online literature search to inaugurate a new project, inquired, "Oh, did you have to get a degree for your job?" Hmph. What did he think-that it only took the three R's to supply a building full of Ph.D.'s with core work material?) It's not just that they don't know what we do, they don't know what we could do. And this warning applies all too often to the people who sign our checks as well.
We've got to define ourselves and our services, to see ourselves as doing our good work through our institutions nor for them. Any change that can lead us to extend service outside our ZIP codes, our immediate constituencies, is a change for the better. It enables us to expand clienteles and to consolidate service efficiently. Clearly in these tough times, saving money with efficiency for our immediate institutions is a necessary goal, but we also must remember that invisible constituency and service to all. Ultimately, it will even contribute to the welfare of all institutions, some more than others, of course. For example, funding open access publishing, curating and archiving OA content of merit, structuring its access routes for effective retrieval by all readers, and integrating it into curricular streams would help all scholars and all scholarly institutions. It could have critical importance to academic institutions creating and extending strong distance learning systems. But even if your institution is not into distance learning, it is still doing the right thing for a world of clients.
Efficient future library operations must be based on strong networking, unified contributions of all librarians, connecting the talent to the need. Of course, in a sensible universe, the ".lib" should have been in place a decade and a half ago. But better late than never, and we might even play a little leap-frog and design our "dot" to do some things that old dots don't. Hmm. Sounds like an article idea. Where's my digital rolodex?
Some of the futures Steve and I suggest may fall to library vendors. Some new vendors may arise. Some of those new vendors may consist of communities of people now working in traditional libraries. We've already seen this kind of thing happen. OCLC is the earliest example, when it transformed cataloging back in the 1960s. Now some of my best friends are vendors (hmm, that sounds oddly familiar), but I have to warn you, dear readers, of a flaw I've noticed in some of our most established vendors. Too often, when a vendor starts working on something new, something exciting and innovative, and it doesn't fly or fly high enough, the vendor has a tendency to blame the market-namely us librarians. The vendor drags out another old image of the hide-bound, defensive Marian/Marion the Librarian clinging to the past and praying for retirement to arrive before the pink slip. It's an easy out, but it doesn't get the job done. It doesn't promote the persistence necessary to get new products off the ground. And, not to be too defensive, you understand, I'm getting a little tired of taking the rap while paying the vendor's rent. Now we don't want to sling stereotypes here, but I think we all can recall cases of vendors which decided to pop their seed corn instead of planting it, who demanded payment in advance for services designed to serve markets unaccustomed to paying for anything. I recall a friendly publicist for a major library vendor telling me of a vice president returning from a session with Google. The VP just kept repeating in awed wonder, "They never even mentioned potential sales or revenue goals. I don't think they could spell ROI." Probably explains why the GGG (Great God Google) does so poorly on the stock exchange. Actually, when you think about it, Google thinks like a librarian-the right kind of librarian anyway, one humming the old jazz classic, "Find out what they like/And how they like it/And let them have it just that way."
Some of this sounds awfully familiar. Readers of the old Searcher may recognize some of the expressions and all of the intent. But-two more quotes, thanks: When it comes to persistence, I side with Ben Franklin ("If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."), although I can also appreciate Mark Twain's view ("If at first you don't succeed, swear."). And I hereby swear that Online Searcher will persist and persist and persist in trying again.
P.S. Here's one new change I hope you'll come to like in the new Searchers' Voice section of Online Searcher. When we have more to say than the print page count gives us, we'll add the content to the online version-which is the case with Steve's piece-at www.infotoday.com/onlinesearcher. Look for the supplemental content logo for the print and the online table of contents to guide you there.
Barbara Quint is senior editor of Online Searcher, contributing editor for ITI's NewsBreaks, and a columnist for Information Today.