My Job in 10 Years: Optimism

Burn down the library. C'mon, all the books in the world are already digitized. Burn the thing down...Stop air conditioning the books. Enough already.

-Adrian Sannier (via)

Optimism seems like a strange thing for a librarian to have at the start of the second decade of the 21st century. There's no shortage of people who seem to think that we'll be completely replaced by Google, that everything is available online for free, that students don't read.

And we've all had experiences where we tell someone at a party what we do for a living and the person just gets a puzzled expression on their face. The question, spoken or unspoken, is, "So what exactly do you do, anyways?" Sometimes dismissively, sometimes truly interested and curious about what libraries are these days. And always about the future. Not only what do we do now, but what could we possibly do in the future that could be of any use to anybody. Some listen, some don't; some accept that the answer is complicated, some dismiss that any complicated answer must by definition mean extinction. If we don't have an elevator pitch, then we don't have a future.

So, it seems that optimism should be hard to come by.

I have a story that explains a little about where I'm coming from.

It so happens that I have a long commute to my work at York University. I live in the central part of midtown Toronto and the university is way up in the northwest corner of the city; taking public transit, my trip to work is often about an hour. The traffic is usually heavier in the evening so my trip home is generally at least fifteen to thirty minutes longer. As a result, I tend to have a lot of reading and thinking time on the bus. During my preparations for writing this book, I read a lot of books on the bus, taking notes on folded pieces of paper that I use as bookmarks. These notes I can then feed into reviews or blog posts or chapter summaries or ideas.

My bus trip also tends to be one of my most productive times for brainstorming new ideas. As a result, I also want to have a place to take more general notes with brief ideas that might fit into a particular chapter or that might be a formatting idea. Mostly, I just used random pieces of paper that I ended up putting in a coat pocket or stuffed into my bag. Not a great system, I admit.

A digression. I'm a big reader and a huge lover of books of all kinds. As of this writing, I haven't quite made the plunge into using a dedicated ebook reader, although it will probably not be too much longer. As a result, I tend to spend a fair bit of money at the Canadian bookstore chain, Chapters-Indigo. I'm also part of the customer loyalty plan. So, what arrives in the mailbox just before the holiday season in 2009? A little gift from Indigo celebrating the fact that I'm one of their "elite" customers. The picture is below:


Yes, a notebook with the word Optimism on the cover. Surely a sign from the information gods that a bricks and mortar bookstore should send me a paper notebook to help me work on a book about the future of libraries. A foot in the past to help me think about the future.

And below is a picture of some of my hand-written notes about both this post and the futures thinking post:


Of course, I also have a foot in the future. Recently while visiting a fellow librarian I noticed a book on her shelves that I just had to read for this project. I thought to myself that I really need to get a hold of a copy -- so I whipped out my iPhone and entered the details in the notes application so I could request the book via my library's interlibrary loan department. And yes, there's probably fifty different apps I could have used to help me with the process -- even just taking a picture of the cover or recording a voice message.

The reason I have optimism for our profession is that we all have a foot in the past -- the values that our profession has come to embody and represent. We also firmly have a foot in the future and are able to translate those values into a way that will make sense for our profession going forward.

Old versus new, print versus electronic, as the old ways evolve into the new, as we transform the print culture of the past into some unknown online culture of the future. Devices will change as today's iPhone becomes tomorrow's paper notebook. The lesson of the notebook that Indigo sent me is not that paper notebooks will forever represent the pinnacle of a portable memory aid, it's also not that iPhones will make paper notebooks obsolete either. It's that change is inevitable and constant and that optimism in the face of those changes will prepare us to evolve along with them.

After all, I'm not prepared to give up either my notebook or my iPhone.

If I may return to the quote at the beginning of this section, it presents an interesting challenge -- especially since Sannier is the Chief Technology Officer of a major university -- Arizona State. It's even more interesting in that if we look at the whole quote it actually turns out he's on our side:

Burn down the library. C'mon, all the books in the world are already digitized. Burn the thing down. Change it into a gathering place, a digital commons. Stop air conditioning the books. Enough already.(My emphasis)

He's actually with the program, he just doesn't know it yet. It's going to be our job to convince him -- gently but forcefully as we also educate him on what actually is and isn't on the web and what libraries are and aren't really about -- and people like him that we're on his side, just like he's really on ours.

I'm optimistic that we're up to the task.

The first page of my little notebook:


I think those words best sum up how I approach this project of laying out the possibilities of the future of my job and our shared professions.

(BTW, read the rest of the ACRLog post -- I agree with most of Steven Bell's points.)

(A random touchy-feely excerpt from Chapter 1. Forgive me, but we all knew there was going to be some touchy-feely in Chapter 1.)

4 responses so far

  • Coturnix says:

    Reminds me of this:

    According to a new report from Cambridge University (PDF), students aren’t interested in being able to read eBooks and eJournals on their mobile phones. Instead, users are far more interested in opening hours, location maps, contact info, and access to the library catalog.

  • Roland says:

    In the early 1900's the papermakers switched from hemp & linen to woodpulp and an acid-based process. All those books--most of the books in most of the libraries--are starting to crumble into dust. Digital is the way to go, at least until hemp is re-legalized. Gutenberg's bible is not printed on woodpulp.

  • John Dupuis says:

    Coturnix, yes, students still seem to prefer paper textbooks and mostly seem to read articles and other ematerial with a laptop or desktop. I think both those habits with change, but I think it will take at least one of two things. First, an affordable tablet-style computer. Second, publishers that will start to format and design documents that will make more sense on smaller screens. Short-term, who knows. Longer term, I think both of those will happen.

    The thing with textbooks is that mobile devices (even the Kindle & it's ilk) still don't do highlighting and annotation very well -- at least not well enough to compensate for the other things they do better.

  • John Dupuis says:

    Roland, yes, digital is certainly the best way to provide access to large numbers of older books. Of course, in a science library like mine, the need to access materials that are more than, say, 10 years old is quite small. So the acid paper issue isn't the most pressing for us.

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