Thursday’s Musing: The Value of Perception, the Librarian and the Library Space

LibraryPicture

(photo (c) 2009 Dorli Photography, available here)

 

As collections are becoming more electronic, the value of the library space is becoming increasingly questioned. A trend among articles written by non-librarians is to link the edifice with the profession: the librarian works in a library, technology is making libraries obsolete, therefore librarians will also become obsolete (librarians are a dead end job according to this article from Yahoo Education, and librarians are a dying breed according to this article from Digital Book World). Even articles that attempt to exclaim the value of librarianship focus heavily on the library spaces, rather than the professionals in those spaces. For example, this recent CNN article kindly relates how libraries are thriving, but focuses almost completely on the edifices themselves: the architecture of the Seattle Public Library, 27 fascinating buildings, the library as a community space, and a photographer’s book of photos of public libraries are all given substantial ink (pixels?). Again, the perception is the edifice and profession are one and the same, so what actually occurs when the physical space is downsized/eliminated?

Personally, I work in a firm that changed locations in the recent past. Upon relocating, the prior building’s vast, stately, oaken library had been replaced with a much smaller interior room with collapsible shelving; the new space is probably less than one-third the size of the old. This isn’t a new development in law firms, AALL’s annual May Architectural issue has more or less been dealing with the issue of library downsizing for at least the past 10 years (the archives of AALL Spectrum is available here). Here are samples of those issues and articles: Modern Spaces, Changing LightPractical Innovation (.pdf page 15), Changing Spaces (.pdf page 10), The Trials and Tribulations of Building or Remodeling a Law Library (.pdf page 12). So, now with the benefit of hindsight in the case study of my firm, what were the ramifications of having a new physical space? Less attorneys come into the actual space now, so face-to-face interactions have definitely decreased. The recent Australian special libraries ROI study we wrote about earlier this week found 27% of library interactions in special libraries are face-to-face these days, our internal number of reference questions received via face-to-face interactions is much less than that. However, the attorneys here can submit reference questions to a virtual interface—and they do, in significant numbers; every year since implementing the virtual reference interface, the library team has answered more questions than the year prior, and more questions than when the building had a more prominent library space. The space diminished and our services became more virtual and used more heavily—the library was diminished, and the librarians adapted to the new, virtual environment, and now take on a larger role in the firm.

So, the question really centers on the perception of the profession: what has to be done for people to separate the librarian from the library and to treat them as different entities? Is this something that will naturally happen as physical library spaces continue to be diminished/changed (ALA provides a wealth of resources on the library as physical space here)—will an absence of stately libraries, but the existence of librarians cause people to change their perception? Or is the common view correct: will smaller spaces equal smaller library forces, even if my firm’s case study resulted in the opposite? Dovetailing off of this, maybe it isn’t fair to use a special library as an example (my example included), as special libraries have confined, consistent patron bases that are presumably more technologically capable of virtual communication, whereas most articles decrying the future existence of librarians seem to focus on public libraries. Are public library edifices more valuable to public librarians, than special library edifices are to special librarians–does the type of library matter? How endangering to the future of the profession is the perception that library and librarian are the same?

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