Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Rethinking our purpose - reflections on reference inspired by Stephen Abrams

I've been reading one of Stephen Abram's articles today and, as usual, it is inspiring and thought provoking.

I think there is a historical transformation underway here that is still not being met by the profession in far far too many places. In the founding days of librarians and archivists in the late nineteenth century, these people held all the cards. I am reminded of that famous quote from the Matrix: "We have survived by hiding from them, by running from them. But they are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors, they are holding all the keys which means that sooner or later, someone is going to have to fight them." One could almost imagine this as inspiration for Google's famous mission statement: "Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." In a way, that mission is in direct competition with information professionals and in some ways, these kinds of companies are killing us.

The fact is that we hold fewer cards than ever before. That's not entirely a bad thing since learning in a variety of ways is good, but that doesn't make us irrelevant. Parts of this older mission remain relevant today though such as stimulating self-directed education and providing democratic access to information. However, the old assumptions that motivated so much of the traditions in this field - e.g. that users can only get what they want from our institutions - are no longer valid. Given the social and cultural assumptions that underpin the 19th century view of librarianship have changed so much, it only makes sense to reimagine our purpose.

Abrams makes many stimulating suggestions about new directions we could take, but I think there is a more general way to state the matter. We need to think the service provided rather than the object provided which has been the focus of the work in the past. Part of this may only be solved by marketing - more people have to be shown the value of mediated access to information. There is a lot of garbage information in the world - we'll help people find the good stuff.

I certainly recommend reading the article and considering some of its points.

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