libraries | play | information | media | policy | culture

2008-03-04

Agent of Change

Librarians have long wrestled with identity. We have argued about our role in an organization or in society. We have struggled to define our work as a field of research, a practical discipline, a higher vocational calling, or some combination of the three.

What remained stable throughout the struggle were the tools, services, and environments in which we operated. Our environment was always the library. Our tools and services were fundamentally bibliographic in nature.

The rapid and continuous development of digital technologies has, of course, changed that. Or has it? It has in the sense that it intensified the library world's struggle over identity, and it's certainly made librarians more accountable to prove the value of the work their doing and generate quantifiable results—neither of which is a bad thing, by the way. What hasn't changed, though, is that librarians still must use tools, design services, and develop environments. Some of them are just digital now.

In other words, proprietary databases, search engines, and Web 2.0 apps are information tools, just like books and periodicals and videos. Reference services and information literacy instruction and archiving and data collection and access are all just services, no matter how they're performed and what tools are used to perform them. Hell, even libraries themselves are only environments, just as the Internet is.

What sets the tools apart is how and why librarians use and understand and interpret them. What sets the services apart are the ways in which librarians design them to meet our public's needs effectively and appropriately. What sets the environments apart is how and why librarians build them and use them and get others to populate them.

So, you see, it's the librarians in all three cases that are (or should be) the agents of action and change, not the tools, services, or environments. And that role as agent of change implies certain values specific to librarianship.

I don't currently work in a library. Yet I went to library school for a particular reason and I still consider myself a librarian, because a librarian's identity has nothing to do with the type of building or organization he works in. I applied to library schools because I recognized that librarianship, of all information sciences, is the most people-centered. And it all comes down to people—how they use content, technology, or a medium, not the content or technology itself.

I became a librarian to understand the "hows" of people's interaction with information and its distributive systems—the informational context—and through that understanding, become an agent of change.