Hyde Park Corner Debate: The Traditional Research Library is Dead

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The final session, called “Hyde Park Corer” took the form of a debate  on the statement: “The Traditional Research Library is Dead”.   Oxford Union-style rules were followed:

  • The audience was asked to vote “yes” or “no” on the statement.
  • Each debater gave a 3-minute statement in support of his position.
  • Audience members were invited to comment.
  • The debaters responded to each other and to the audience comments.
  • Another vote was taken.
  • The winner is the debater who convinced the most people to change their opinion and support his position.

Rick Anderson (left, above), Interim Dean, Marriott Library, University of Utah, took the pro position, arguing that traditional research libraries are dead.  Derek Law (right), Professor Emeritus, University of Strathclyde, took the position that they are not dead.  Both protagonists delivered passionate arguments in support of their stances.

The audience vote at the start of the debate was nearly even, with 52% of the audience voting Yes and 48% voting No.

Pro:  The traditional library is dead.

Anderson said that the traditional research library was formed in an era when information was difficult for users to find on their own.  They were unable to organize collections, and negotiate complex user interfaces of stopgap services purchased to improve access.  That is dead; the world of information is easier than ever to navigate and many tools are now available.

Until recently, the traditional library was defined by its large and comprehensive physical collection which was built by librarians speculating on what users would need.  These permanent printed collections  are dead.  Print circulation rates are down dramatically.  Yes, scientists continue to use books, but they don’t check them out from the library.  The traditional online environment is doubtful.  Traditional catalogs were needed in the print era, but  in the online era the practice of cataloging is dead.  The role of the librarian as intermediary is no more.  Only librarians understood how call numbers worked, but today’s users don’t need them any more and feel they are perfectly capable of evaluating documents on their own.  The library is important as a place; even though usage of collections is declining, gate counts are rising.  The library has become a place to do scholarly work, but it is no longer a place to get copies of research works.

What patrons ought to do in libraries is an interesting question, but what they actually do is more important.  We should separate “should” questions from “is” questions and must not make the mistake of assuming that reality will conform to our ideals.

Anti: The traditional library is not dead.

Law began with the familiar adage that the more things change the more they stay the same.  Even in the 12th century, faculty were complaining about budget cuts, students were complaining about tuition fees, rights holders were complaining about massive copying.

Law defined the traditional research library by examining each of the words in the term.

Tradition is about evolution.  Research libraries have existed for about 3,000 years.  Traditional libraries have always adapted to changing media.  Print, CDs, online systems, and many other types of literature all belong in libraries.

Research:  The library is a place for research, not a children’s playground.  Students need to be taught about information.  Scientific disciplines cannot be self-taught.  We therefore cannot ignore the role of librarians in the research process.  Who knows how to do organizing and managing information?  Traditional librarians.

Library content:  Many things in libraries have been donated, not bought.  A great library is defined by its collections and acquisitions, not its purchases.  The traditional library remains useful, if nothing else, as a backup.  It is universal–as countries withdraw from the Internet by blocking access to it, scholars will still have to find out about them.  One of the great triumphs of international diplomacy in the 20th century is the interlibrary loan system.

Collection building is becoming building collections of online resources.  Crowdnsourcing is fine but it lacks intellectual rigor.  As China becomes a dominant world force, standardization of information will become more critical.

The organization of knowledge is a noble effort.  One of the key and undervalued roles of the traditional library is preservation.  It is not fashionable but it is important, and traditional research libraries know how to do it.  In the best research libraries the librarian is part of the research team.  Students are self taught and ignorant without the education of librarians.  The library has evolved into new traditions and has become a welcome social space.

Audience responses

  • The skills that lie behind what librarians do will endure.  Libraries and librarians will survive, but they will look very different in the future.
  • There is a fundamental difference between the library of yesterday and the one of today.  We are moving away from seeing the library associated with a collection to it being a collection of services drawing on collections that may or may not be part of the library.  This requires a change in our thinking–we must ask “how can we bring users and information together?”.
  • The library would be more alive if it protected materials in a better fashion.
  • We are going to be more involved in teaching and learning assessment, which have not historically been part of librarians’ roles.
  • The traditional research library is not dead. They are all over the place.  It takes some time to kill something like that.  The better question is whether they are useful or not.
  • If you leave America, you will find out that there are scholar librarians.  The librarians in Alexandria were scholars.  Some libraries are extremely traditional and they are not going away. There are also those that are on the leading edge.  The core of our profession is our intellectual contribution, and that is not going away.

Replies

Derek Law responded that some things that traditional libraries do are actually very modern.  The ephemeral nature of the publishing industry is a failed concept.   Research does not exist to support publishing.  Roles do change, but principles do not.  The underlying fundamental principle of librarianship comes from Ranganathan:  get the right information to the right user at the right time.  The vast majority of electronic material is non commercial, and we have failed to deal with it.

Our priciples are unchanging and not fickle.  We must accentuate the positive and limit the negative.

Rick Anderson replied that to survive for 3,000 years we must have been doing something right.  And we were.  We were doing the only thing that reasonably could be done because information was trapped in clay tablets.  Gathering and organizing those objects was the right thing to do.

Although it is true that research training in information handling is essential, that does not provide a valid argument for maintaining traditional librarians, in fact, it has nothing to do with traditional librarians.  It may, however, make sense for research librarians to become data managers.

It is not true that the traditional library is best defined by its non-commercial material.  Many unique and non-commercial materials are never cataloged at all and constitute only a minority of the items in collections.  These materials are not central to the daily life of a library.  They may make a library unique, but being unique and being vital or useful to its clientele are not the same thing.

In the closing poll, 67% of the audience voted Yes, and 33% voted No, so Anderson won the debate.

:dhchs12:

 

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5 thoughts on “Hyde Park Corner Debate: The Traditional Research Library is Dead

  1. Both assertions are, in my opinion, incorrect. What we are witnessing is the slow demise of the “scholarly, American-style research library” that has been forced upon us by exiles from the Library of Congress who have taken over too many leadership positions in the academy. The model being used now is that of the Library Congress which is a “research library” but not an academic research library. There is a big difference between the two.

    Campus libraries are looking more and more like European libraries of old. Books cannot be browsed but only retrieved upon need and not always in a timely fashion. Sure, there are electronic resources everywhere now–in libraries, out of libraries, on the Internet or elsewhere. In the debate, the following was asserted:

    “…the world of information is easier than ever to navigate and many tools are now available.”
    ” The role of the librarian as intermediary is no more.” No, the most authoritative and relevant information (what scholars need) is hidden in a sea of information. It is not easily discoverable and is often referred to as the “deep web.” The librarian is once again playing the role of intermediary in the form of a filter — helping to identify the best information in the sea.

    At the same time, our notion of the traditional research library is not that of the perspective of scholars (whom we should be working with). It is unfortunately the notion of not very well informed librarians overly influenced by the Library of Congress types. The best examples of influential, scholarly libraries are special libraries/ departmental libraries that were once associated with elite, highly ranked schools and departments [something that should be elaborated upon--but not in this venue] where librarians worked with scholars on research projects and helped guide inquiry.
    Keep in mind that libraries and librarianship is not about finding materials or answers to questions. It is about posing intelligent questions (the basis of good scholarship) and collecting material that will generate inquiry not just now but in the future.

    This brings me to the other assertion:

    “Collection building is becoming building collections of online resources.”

    “One of the key and undervalued roles of the traditional library is preservation. It is not fashionable but it is important, and traditional research libraries know how to do it.”

    Yes, librarians know how to do this. However, we are making every effort not to do it correctly. We continue to ignore that fact that digital archiving is an oxymoron. And, we are not honest with our benefactors about the long-term costs of keeping digital material in a form that will be sustained long-term. Out approach is dishonest and short-sighted (two attributes that should never be associated with libraries or librarians).

    In fact, the question of this debate is wrong. There has never been a “traditional research library.” The best libraries are unique, integrated with research, and a part of the academy.

    The only part of the library maintaining this function are the archives and manuscripts collections. It is my assertion that every academic unit deserves something similar to what we now associated with archive and manuscripts. If this is not done, there will be no role in the academy for librarians–just a role for clerks. Our library leaders are succeeding in turning libraries into cost centers rather than value centers.

  2. I have to wonder where all these exiles from LC are working — over the past couple of decades I’ve worked with hundreds of librarians in a variety of academic and research libraries, and to my knowledge none of them, and none of their leaders, has ever worked at LC or could reasonably be characterized as a “Library of Congress type.” But be that as it may:

    Campus libraries are looking more and more like European libraries of old. Books cannot be browsed but only retrieved upon need and not always in a timely fashion.

    In many research libraries, it’s true that low-use books are migrating from the stacks to some kind of storage, either local or remote. This does decrease their physical browsability (though browsing online is arguably far more effective, even if the experience feels different from shelf browsing). However, as with all library strategies, it’s important to look not only at what is lost but also at what is gained. If–as is the case is virtually every research library with which I’m familiar–your book stacks are deserted while your study spaces are crammed to bursting, then sacrificing theoretical browsing in favor of actually-needed space may well be the right choice. All available choices involve trade-offs, which will vary from library to library, and these have to be considered carefully.

    Keep in mind that libraries and librarianship is not about finding materials or answers to questions. It is about posing intelligent questions (the basis of good scholarship) and collecting material that will generate inquiry not just now but in the future.

    Gosh, but it makes us feel good to say that, doesn’t it? What’s so wonderful about this position is that it undermines any attempt to assess whether or not the library is actually returning good value to the institution that sponsors it. If no one can find the documents needed in order to complete a scholarly task, the librarian need not feel bad–after all, finding documents or answers to questions is beside the point! Let’s focus on improving the quality of your question instead. (What? That doesn’t help you complete your assignment or complete your book or secure your grant funding? Please, try to avoid such instrumental thinking. The process is the goal here. Where are you from, anyway, the Library of Congress?) If the stacks are filled with books that no one has used in 40 years, what does that matter? They will surely generate inquiry in the future! (The beautiful thing about the future is that it’s always ahead of us, allowing us to delay indefinitely being called to account for the wisdom of our spending today.)

    Needless to say, I consider this position to be baloney. Of course it’s true that one important function of academic libraries is to help in the formulation of intelligent questions–but to assert that this is “the” function of academic libraries (as opposed to connecting students and scholars with materials and helping them find answers to their questions) is absurd, even perverse.

  3. Your response to my assertion is typical of those influenced by the “Library of Congress types.” You’ve been influenced whether you know it or not.

    You indicate the need to measure, but your instrument is not academic. It is clerk-like (bean counter). Wouldn’t a better measurement be how often your library or librarians are cited in the acknowledgements or prefaces of books and dissertations. The thank you notes in articles (of faculty and students) often appearing in the footnotes are good as well. Acknowledgements to the library and librarians in assisting with grant applications. And much more about the interactive role between librarians and professors as well as the administrators.

    Of course libraries retrieve requested books and answer factual questions. This can be done at a public library as well. If this is what you want in an academic library, then, yes, I agree the academic library is dead. Consolidate all the libraries into the public library (in this you will find great cost savings). Keep a study hall on campus and “chat” with the public librarians to find and request materials.

    You seem to forget (or perhaps it never dawned on you), that the key role of an academic library (and all libraries in my view) is to enhance serendipity (finding great ideas, new directions, innovations and more that were not originally sought). A librarian is the facilitator of this great endeavor.

    Your business-type alumni might agree that this is baloney–but not your professors. Whom do you serve anyway?

    Are you suggesting that we collect only material that is currently desired (highly likely to be used on your watch) and not information useful to future inquiry.

    Your points are debate points. However, I find them too personal and not befitting an academic inquiry. You equate COST with VALUE. You are, to paraphrase Oscar Wild, a cynic who knows the cost of everything the and value of nothing.

    I have nothing against efficiency or cost sharing. But academic libraries should not forget their mission.

    • (Apologies for the slow response to Stuart’s rejoinder; I wasn’t notified when it was posted.)

      You indicate the need to measure, but your instrument is not academic. It is clerk-like (bean counter). Wouldn’t a better measurement be how often your library or librarians are cited in the acknowledgements or prefaces of books and dissertations. The thank you notes in articles (of faculty and students) often appearing in the footnotes are good as well. Acknowledgements to the library and librarians in assisting with grant applications. And much more about the interactive role between librarians and professors as well as the administrators.

      Stuart, the first mention of “measurement” in this conversation has come from you. I have proposed no methods of value measurement; I have only proposed that we carefully weigh actual, demonstrable demand against theoretical, future demand when making difficult decisions about how to allocate our scarce resources. The value measurements you propose certainly have much to recommend them–unfortunately, feasibility is not among those things.

      Of course libraries retrieve requested books and answer factual questions. This can be done at a public library as well. If this is what you want in an academic library, then, yes, I agree the academic library is dead.

      What I actually said (“connecting students and scholars with materials and helping them find answers to their questions”) goes far beyond retrieving books and answering factual questions. But I guess that’s why you twisted and mischaracterized what I said; a straw man is much easier to hit.

      You seem to forget (or perhaps it never dawned on you), that the key role of an academic library (and all libraries in my view) is to enhance serendipity (finding great ideas, new directions, innovations and more that were not originally sought). A librarian is the facilitator of this great endeavor.

      I have neither “forgotten” nor do I disagree that the (or at least a) key function of libraries is to enable to finding of information and the creation of new ideas. Where we seem to disagree is on how best a library can do that.

      Are you suggesting that we collect only material that is currently desired (highly likely to be used on your watch) and not information useful to future inquiry.

      If forced to choose between buying a book that I know a scholar needs today and buying a book that I think a future scholar might need ten years from now, then I (like any responsible librarian) will choose the former. But in reality, this is a false dichotomy. The books that scholars need today will, in many cases, also be books that scholars need ten years from now. And since (given limitations of budget and space) I have no choice but to select some books and reject others, I don’t have the luxury of simply buying books on the basis of “someday someone might need it.” That could be said about virtually any book.

      What this all comes down to is the reality of limited resources. You can call recognition of that reality “bean-counting” if you wish, but when we’re finished arguing there will still only be a certain number of beans on the table, and knowing how many of them there are is a very important part of being a professional librarian. So is making difficult, hardheaded decisions about their allocation. Lofty and emotionally resonant rhetoric about how wonderful it would be if we didn’t have to count beans might make us feel warm inside, but it sure doesn’t help us advance scholarship in the real world.

  4. The debate has changed from “traditional research library” to “traditional research librarian.”

    Assumption/definition: The traditional research library would have all relevant materials from the past as well as the writings in the most recently published books & periodicals.

    Although all past writings are not available online, let’s just say for the sake of argument that in 10 or 20 years, they will be. Unrealistic, I know, but here’s my point: even if all the books from the last 90 years were available in electronic format, they will NOT always be free.

    Libraries have always existed in part in order to reduce the costs of publication and distribution. Although electronic files have minimal distribution costs, the publication costs are not much different than a traditional book (i.e., paying the author, the editors, the peer reviewers, the publishers, etc. The actual printing cost of a book is minimal.) Thus, a research library, if it subscribes to the appropriate journals, and if it holds still-copyrighted books/ebooks, is still able to fulfill one major mission: centralize purchasing. Not every researcher need pay to download the same electronic files on their iPad.

    However, the point of special collections, which was brought up earlier, seems to have been overlooked in the increasingly personal sniping above. Special collections, in my regard, are one of the main strengths of a library even though a relatively new development (at least, captialized Special Collections are.)

    Private book collectors have long been aware of the desirability of “special collections”, and of course, many libraries’ own SCs are formed from important donations. We should care about SCs because the letters of an important deceased scientist, say, are more useful to a modern researcher if they are collected. If libraries go all digital (which essentially means they become a website with a login), then this scientist’s letters go to private hands. Over time, if not immediately, the letters get broken up, sold off piecemeal. History is lost.

    Special Collections might also take the form of collecting materials, including digital files, based on certain themes. UCLA is receiving a donation of over 10,000 items which are American depictions of Arabians: movies, books, cigarette ads, etc. Sure, the individual items are out there somewhere, but put them together and what do you see?

    Finally, I have a different take on this statement: “Traditional catalogs were needed in the print era, but in the online era the practice of cataloging is dead.” I agree with it, but whereas Anderson takes this as a good thing, I take it as a shame. The art (yes, I mean art) of cataloguing is NOT the same as searching online. For my own researches, I find so much more information in booksellers’ catalogues, annotated bibliographies, and professional indices, than I do in WorldCat, Amazon, Google, or LOC keyword searches. In this “information age”, I firmly believe that part of the role of librarians and booksellers alike is that of filtering the information. Otherwise, we rely on keywords and algorithms, both of which miss massive amounts of information. Also, those methods are not able to qualify information, whereas a professional cataloguer or bibliographer is. In public libraries across the country, the amount of reference questions is skyrocketing: why don’t these people just Google the answers, if we live in such an age of free information? Because there’s too much information, and it can take a librarian’s skill to filter it intelligently.

    So, for these three reasons, I would argue that traditional research libraries should (for they certainly do) still exist: centralizing known material, and collecting errant material, and intelligently cataloguing everything.

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