Every year I've attended the Medical Library Association meeting I've stayed through Wednesday, but this year I headed home Tuesday night. My loss--by all accounts Geoff Bilder of CrossRef was an engaging speaker Wednesday morning. Next year I'll stay for the duration.
I did have the fortune to hear Scott's Doe lecture on Monday, which was very strong. This year's plenaries were strong in general, as Clay Shirky got us off to a good start Sunday. The Janet Doe Lecture is how MLA honors its own, offering a member who has exhibited long-standing creativity and dedication the opportunity to express their philosophy of health sciences librarianship.
Scott's main message, as he's argued on his blog and in other forums, is that this is a great age for librarians and not for libraries. The era of building great collections housed in impressive buildings is over. If we continue to think of ourselves as collection builders, as dealers in materials and not in ideas, we are doomed. This existential threat to the purpose of libraries stems from the ease of online access to information, which will continue to reshape our world.
Humankind has been down this road before. Scott referred to Andrew Pettegree's study of the book in the Renaissance era, to make the point that a truly mature print culture--the one we all grew up in--took decades to materialize post-Gutenberg. For the scrollmakers the printing press was an extremely disruptive and unwelcome technology, but eventually it prevailed. One can foresee a similar course for ebooks, even if this takes decades. Scott's own prediction is that a truly mature digital culture is two generations away, which means nobody alive today will live to see it.
What does this mean for librarians? We can guard the models of the past fiercely, thus sealing our doom. Or we can step into the future boldly, with an air of experimentation and a willingness to be wrong just as often (or even more often) than we are right. I'd like to see the library become much less of a warehouse and much more of a facilitator of new research and teaching that is only possible using digital tools. This unwinding might take decades--so be it. In the meantime we can shift our resources toward facilitation of new work and away from collection development.
This can seem scary to many librarians, and offensive to some. You can hear the cries--"this isn't what I went to school for!" But Scott is very excited by the prospect of shaping the digital future. Just as the scholars who created journals in the 1600s created an entirely new information ecosystem, we have the chance to do the same. The question is whether we want to do so.
On the same day Scott delivered his talk marketing expert Seth Godin posted a highly tweeted perspective on the future of the library. Although Godin's focus is on public libraries, his themes resonate strongly with Scott's argument. To close, some quotes from Godin:
"Librarians that are arguing and lobbying for clever ebook lending solutions are completely missing the point. They are defending library as warehouse as opposed to fighting for the future, which is librarian as producer, concierge, connector, teacher and impresario."
"We need librarians more than we ever did. What we don't need are mere clerks who guard dead paper. Librarians are too important to be a dwindling voice in our culture. For the right librarian, this is the chance of a lifetime."