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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies


Contemplating the Future for Libraries and Librarians
July/August 2022 Issue

While sitting in a coffee shop the other day, I struck up a conversation with the two gentlemen next to me. They were from Zimbabwe, and one had a friend who was a retired librarian at a South African university (UNISA). Naturally, the conversation turned to the future of academic libraries. I assured him they did have a future, but it would be different from the past. I had a similar conversation with an attendee at Information Today, Inc.’s Data Summit conference in May in Boston. He has a young child but wondered whether public libraries still have any relevance in an internet world. After our discussion, he emailed me that I’d inspired him to find a way to get his 4th grader to the library more often. Much as I’d like to think, “My work here is done,” that’s far from the case.

The way forward for libraries and their relevance in today’s world remains a somewhat murky area. While Bob Berkman, writing in both this issue of Online Searcher and the May/June issue, is enthusiastic about the return of news librarians, citing job advertisements he’s seen. More recently, the word from Australia is that the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corp.) national news organization will abolish 58 archivist and librarian positions contradicts that enthusiasm. The ABC expects journalists to research and archive stories. I can just imagine how good reporters will be at choosing proper metadata. Automation will take over for some of the lost jobs, just as it has in other industry sectors.

To counter the 58 job losses, the ABC intends to add 30 new jobs, including something it is calling “content navigators,” who will help journalists use the digitized archives. With luck, ABC will recognize that content navigation is a skill possessed by professional librarians.

As technologies change, it’s not surprising to find that job requirements change. Librarians take on new roles with new job titles. They become experts at data visualization, AI technologies, copyright compliance, scholarly communications, research data management, information security, contract negotiation, taxonomies, and educational gaming. I know one librarian who is now responsible for enterprise search within a large corporation. When this means moving out of traditional libraries, it raises the question of whether the future of libraries and the future of librarians are separate concerns.

One aspect of the future of libraries involves money. I frequently hear librarians asking about alternatives for expensive databases since their institutions have cut their budget and they can no longer afford the resource. This strangulation by budget impairs the ability of libraries to fulfill their basic mission and leads to them being considered irrelevant by users. Advocating for increased, not decreased, budget money and enlisting champions in the advocacy initiatives are vital librarian skills. Making the library, library resources, and the special skill sets of information professionals, visible particularly when resources are electronic and, thus, invisible, is essential to cementing a positive future. Out of sight means both out of mind and out of money.

It often seems that we’re marching into the future one step forward then one step back. Still, I believe that both libraries and librarians have a future; it will just look very different from the past and even the present.

Marydee Ojala is Editor-in-Chief of Online Searcher (the successor journal to ONLINE) and writes its business research column ("The Dollar Sign"). She has contributed feature articles and news stories to Information TodayEContentComputers in LibrariesIntranetsCyberSkeptic's Guide to the InternetBusiness Information Review, and Information Today's NewsBreaks. A long-time observer of the information industry, she speaks frequently at conferences, such as WebSearch University, Internet Librarian, Internet Librarian International, Computers in Libraries, and national library meetings worldwide. She has adjunct faculty status at the School of Library and Information Science at IUPUI (Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis). Her professional career began at BankAmerica Corporation, San Francisco, directing a worldwide program of research and information services. She established her independent information research business in 1987. Her undergraduate degree is from Brown University and her MLS was earned at the University of Pittsburgh.


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