By Patricia F. Anderson
What it means to be a librarian has changed dramatically as technology has altered our methods and adjusted our roles for our patrons and our communities. I identify some of the prevailing trends as bubble, blur, flip, spin, hoard and hug. Here’s my story.
January 1985. Nights, I was a poet and single mom. Days, I was a copy cataloger, and selector for 20th-century English-language poetry. I turned down a fellowship in creative writing in favor of library school. Goal: poetry librarian.
August 1985. Craig Mulder and I stood in front of a desk in Library Human Resources in the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library. We were the first two in the new Library Associates Program at what became UMSI.
1985-87. I worked for two years under Maurita Holland in the Engineering Library, taking courses in information science, management, the evolution of higher education, artificial intelligence, programming, healthcare, and classic library skills. My program was designed to create a combination of librarian, geek squad, manager, and service provider. The focus was on big picture thinking in the context of intellectual curiosity and flexibility. I thought I’d be a corporate librarian in artificial intelligence and neural network R&D.
1987-now. Instead, I ended up spending my career in the academic health sciences.
You see, I never did have a clue what I was going to be when I “grew up,” and that’s turned out to be a good thing. My job now is based strongly on the idea that we don’t know what’s coming next, watching for patterns and trends, and sharing those with my colleagues and the public. The skills I’m using on a daily basis are rooted in what librarians have always done — discover, select, collect, organize, husband, access, preserve, assist, share, teach, outreach, research, advocacy, create — but there are new skills, competencies, and contexts that I didn’t and couldn’t have learned in grad school.
Even 10 years ago, I never imagined I’d be asked, as part of my professional work, to write about the intersection of nanotechnology and tattoos, participate in a personal genomics research study as an extension of writing a book review, or teach a class on how to get dressed in a virtual world; but these are some of the less traditional activities I’ve done in my job. I also have worked in informatics, systematic reviews, written books and articles, taught library skills sessions in classes, and been challenged with some very tricky reference questions. The unexpected aspects of my work are an extension of the expected.
The past few years, I’ve done an annual half-day workshop on the emerging technology trends impacting higher education. What impacts education impacts libraries, as well as many other areas of our personal and professional lives.
Here’s a closer look at what I see as current trends in emerging technologies.
Trend: The dot-com bubble burst. The real estate bubble burst. Now they say the higher ed bubble is bursting. Somewhere in between real world economies and the “graying of America,” people have been figuring out that lifelong learning means they can learn on their own through community colleges, MOOCs and digitally curated collections, and that they can learn and teach with others in online social learning spaces. It’s harder to get a formal degree, but with questions about if degrees pay off and a shifting hiring emphasis on skills and competencies, new approaches like badges may take the place of degrees.
Impact: Resources for learning are shifting to new spaces. Students will come from those learning environments, which will present new learning and outreach opportunities for patients and public. How do we position ourselves and our institutions in these new learning and teaching spaces in order to market our expertise, to engage our public, and to provide outreach and community support?
Trend: We’ve talked for decades about interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research, and the blurring of boundaries between academic disciplines. This goes far beyond that. The idea of “what is a book?” or even “what is a publication?” is blurring. I am daily confronted with concepts beyond open access and open source to conversations about open data, data archives, proposals that software or video productions should count in tenure review as academic publications.
The idea of authorship blurs with crowdsourcing research analysis leading to articles with hundreds or thousands of co-authors. Arguments earlier this year about the #NymWars and Google Plus made it clear that real life and virtual identities are also blurring.
Devices are “blurring.” Tools are developed to allow phones or tablets to control computers, and computers to control phones. I’ve bought a wristwatch to control my stereo, and found computer software to let the computer edit my e-reader.
In healthcare, I’m fascinated by ways in which wearable computing, embedded devices in the body, nanotech, and bioengineering are blurring the idea of what is our body. Nanotech blurs it the most, with many new kinds of tattoos that can embed sensors and interactive displays in our skin. It isn’t just tech blurring the idea of our body. Now that we have the genome and personal genomics, there are all these “-omics” spinoffs — microbiome, exosome, exposome. These have made it clear that what we’ve thought of as a human is really more of a symbiotic creature comprised of multiple collaborating organisms. The question “What is a book?” easily morphs to become “what is a body?” or “what is human?”
Impact: We’ve depended on discrete categories for classifying information and objects we wish to discover or rediscover. The language by which we refer to concepts is changing faster than our systems can accommodate, with old terms given new meanings and new terms for old concepts. There are challenges facing how we manage information that are broader in scope than the already enormous challenge of alternative publication formats, flexible information formats, and containerless information objects.
Trend: Flipping is when what we’ve learned to expect turns upside down. Paul Courant proposed we shift from pre-publication peer review to post-publication. Changing models of publication find early drafts of work free online, and only later in the process do these become print objects. The “flipped” classroom is all the buzz in education. Sometimes it means digital learning objects such as lecture videos are consumed outside of class with class time reserved for conversation or interactive projects. Other times it means student-led and student-driven learning with the teacher as guide rather than sage. In healthcare provision, the flip is a shift away from top-down healthcare toward a more collaborative model, often referred to as participatory medicine, with patients as the “captain” of their healthcare team. Even the fundamental concept of “what is science?” and research methodology is flipping. With citizen science, crowdsourcing, life-streaming, big data, personal genomics, etcetera, the idea that data is scarce is no longer true. The hypothesis-driven model of scientific enquiry was based on the idea that data is scarce and research must be carefully designed to generate the appropriate data. When data is not scarce, is the hypothesis-driven model the right model?
Impact: The very nature of science and how we do research is shifting. Similar models demanding flexibility are emerging simultaneously in multiple fields. A few years ago, IBM published the Gaming and Leadership report. A surprise to many was IBM’s praise of young workers with experience as World of Warcraft gamers, because they adapted well to new enterprise models of teamwork, with flexible rotating leadership roles. How can we embrace the core concepts of flexibility and adaptation in our profession? Can we shift cataloging to crowdsourcing, with the cataloger as guide? What about reference? How can we partner with our public in new ways in support of collection development and management?
Trend: The University of Wisconsin has a large digital storytelling initiative, in which teachers and students are trained in the core competencies of connecting learning with storytelling through digital media assignments. This is now being used here in the Medical School. Through the visionary oversight of Jane Blumenthal, our medical library has video production staff, several staff working with social media, a designated outreach librarian, with all professional librarians strongly encouraged to blog. The U-M Risk Science Center has just started a new graduate level science communication program. Other schools have recently created programs in science journalism and data journalism. I work closely with campus marketing professionals and instructional designers. It is no longer enough to just do the research, to have the knowledge. You have to also be able to tell your story, persuasively. You have to know how to communicate effectively, how to spin the information for different audiences. Being able to “spin” the information, from creating videos to infographics and graphic design, is part of teaching now, part of demonstrating competence and convincing others of your credibility and trustworthiness.
Impact: The foundation of librarianship depends on a balance between service and authority or credibility. That is our primary currency of value. But we have an “image problem.” As a profession, we’ve never been good at telling others why we are wonderful. Librarianship needs to think beyond “storytelling for children” to using new digital media tools and resources to “teach through story” and “tell our stories.”
Trend: Big data, data mining, text mining, semantic computing, data visualization and sonification, social data, life-streaming, the quantified self, genomics … all of these generate or depend on the availability of large amounts of information that is mostly not scholarly in nature. However, just because the information itself isn’t scholarly doesn’t mean it isn’t needed for scholarly activities and products. These are just the tip of the iceberg, and the issues apply equally strongly in biosciences, healthcare, humanities, finance and politics, and other domains. Libraries are recognizing this and become core partners in research through data archiving programs as well as providing data analysis services. The challenge is only in part the data services, however, as scholars use blogs and similar open public web-based services to document research concepts and processes or to depend on content being created by others in such services. The question of how to document and archive versions of content on the open Web becomes especially critical as these public services quickly come into being and unexpectedly disappear.
Impact: Like research being based on the understanding of data scarcity, library collections and processes have evolved around the idea of resource scarcity. When I worked as the Dentistry Librarian it intrigued me that the most urgently sought and difficult to find materials were those earlier generations of librarians and researchers had discarded as not being relevant or useful or scholarly. With the shift toward big data etc, is it still appropriate to base models of collection development on selectivity? Or, perhaps, libraries could collect broadly and widely, creating and collaborating with the public and topic experts on using digital curation systems to support discovery?
Trend: It’s about people. “High tech, high touch” is the phrase I’ve been hearing. Social media, crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, citizen science, citizen journalism, skill shares, skill swaps, massive open online courses (MOOCs), games for learning, games for health, games for change, virtual worlds: so many of these new technology platforms are based around connecting people. Online community manager is becoming a fairly common job title. Communicating effectively is part of what we need to do, but it isn’t enough unless we also are capable of using communication to build connections with and between people.
Impact: Libraries have great historic strengths in community building, although this usually was not a skill directly addressed in grad school. Perhaps this is now such a critical competency that it should be consider core to our skillbase.
There are two dramatic overarching themes I’ve noticed that surround all of the trends mentioned above: privacy vs. transparency; and openness vs. control. There are very real dangers associated with taking either side of these to an extreme. How those dynamics evolve in our broader culture have the potential to make or break us. Librarianship has traditionally been a voice for moderation, balance, and inclusion. The choices we make as professionals and individuals now can shape the incredible future emerging around us.