Armies of librarians are necessary to understand the modern information onslaught

Librarians create catalogues, add metadata and teach people how to think critically about what they find on the internet. The world has changed and so have they, says Beth Montague-Hellen

February 8, 2019
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In a world filled with fake news, disinformation and information overload, the best spin that I can put on Jeffrey Beall’s attack on modern academic libraries is that it seems naive and misguided. Librarians may have different roles in the modern world than they did in the rose-tinted heyday of Beall’s imagination, but those roles are still vital in supporting research and teaching.

Whether you think that the internet is an amazing resource spreading knowledge to millions who could never previously have accessed it, or a slippery slope to advocating for social justice and writing snarky tweets about Donald Trump, it is here to stay. There is nothing that we can do about that. 

Although much of the world’s scholarly output is still in subscription journals and books, and traditional librarian skills in managing collections are still relevant, the information landscape has undeniably changed in the last few decades. This transformation in information culture has shaken up the role of the library, and librarians have had to reskill in order to keep up. Numbers of academic librarians may not have changed greatly since the early 2000s, but the way that they fulfil their role has. The idea that if librarians are not putting books on shelves they are sitting around twiddling their thumbs is nonsense. 

Google may provide a wealth of information to anyone with an internet connection, but anyone who has ever used it knows that diving into that pool with the hopes of finding truthful and reliable information can be pretty fruitless. Modern librarians can help patrons access and make sense of that information, just like the librarian of ages past helped patrons make sense of stacks and stacks of printed tomes. 

Librarians are creating catalogues, adding metadata, and teaching courses, all designed to help find and curate those reliable resources in a sea of opinionated blog posts. The assumption that librarians no longer add value to information is a strange statement coming from a man who is mostly know for “Beall’s List”, a resource to help researchers navigate the enormous number of journals available to them without falling prey to predatory publishers. Whether you are a fan of this list or not, it is exactly the sort of endeavour that librarians are needed for.

Many of Beall’s complaints about left-wing librarians sound like someone shouting at the sky. The world has changed, whether he likes it or not. But a different world does not sound the death knell for the librarian. For example, yesterday, rather than finding my day empty and filling it with Twitter as a way to pass those empty hours, I used the online platform to connect with colleagues at a conference that I was unable to attend to discuss the current state of scholarly communications. I no longer have to travel for hours and congregate in one place to share practice and obtain advice from colleagues. Conferences are expensive for hosts and delegates alike, and the use of technology to save money here allows for libraries to put it to use in other ways, be that in paying for collections or paying for staff. 

A left-wing ideology may be “homogenous” in libraries, as Beall claims, but is that truly surprising? Our primary goal is to provide access to knowledge, regardless of who that person may be. That goal is egalitarian; it is inherently left-wing. 

We promote open access for exactly this reason, not to do ourselves out of a job creating journal collections. The library is no longer an enclosed space where we hoard knowledge for a select few. Instead, librarians are helping academics promote their research to as many people as possible, breaking down barriers thrown up by geography or finance. Those that are stuck in the past cannot understand this new library unbounded by walls and book covers, but those of us who love knowledge, and support research, are still in academic library jobs. 

The academic library is not going anywhere. It may change, so much so that it is unrecognisable, but it will always be rooted in providing reliable information to its patrons.

Beth Montague-Hellen is senior research librarian at the  University of Nottingham. 

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Reader's comments (2)

Well said, Beth.
We are now serving the much-needed role of a concierge vs. information gatekeeper. This is front and center especially in the world of OER.

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