Wednesday, 1 June 2011

From Lending to Learning

What is the role of libraries and librarians? In particular, what is our role in respect of books?

For some the library is dead. Everything is available on the Web and it can be delivered to your mobile digital device so why do we need the library as an intermediary? Many people (and not just librarians) strongly disagree with this and argue that the library is still an important concept for many reasons. It provides access for the digitally excluded; it selects and organises information in digital and print formats; and of course everything is not available on the web.

Some observers have a more fundamental objection to relying on digital information. Professor Susan Greenfield fears that "our very understanding, our sense of reasoning, might now also be diminished and brutalized by the simplistic sensory sensations of the screen experience" (ID: the quest for meaning in the 21st century). She suggests:
"For us, the icon on the screen can be a symbol for many things but without a pre-existing conceptual framework there can be no metaphor. An intellectual skill that comes from reading books is the process of generalization of an abstract concept from a multitude of different examples. Might succeeding generations be less inclined to savour ideas without icons? Will they understand concepts such as democracy, honour or soul?  Once you have framed your question about an abstract concept you can turn to Google or Wikipedia. But my concern is that such open ended questions won't occur to those brought up in a world of screen experiences. A world of immediate response rather than of reflective initiative."
So books and libraries are still relevant, but what exactly is the role of  libraries and librarians. Some critics have accused us of loosing the plot:
 "The once famous and treasured book collections had been allowed to dwindle to the point of uselessness, if not extinction. Book lending - the libraries' main function - had halved. Visitor numbers had fallen." (Tim Coates. The Good Library Manual).
 Coates is not anti IT. Far from it, but his message is that librarians should focus on the essentials. Provide a good stock, an attractive building and extended opening hours and everything else will fall into place. Anything that distracts attention away from this core function is a bad thing. If I understand Tim Coates correctly he is saying that if we run "good" libraries then the users will come and when they come they will benefit from all the wonderful things that libraries and books can provide. But librarians should not be overly concerned with those final ends. Those goals - lifelong learning, social inclusion, community empowerment - may well emerge, but our concern should be with running an efficient library and nothing more.

However, many professionals are not prepared to accept this view of their role. Ronan O'Beirne is the latest to call for a new direction in his recent book From Lending to Learning;
 "… the role [of libraries] has less to do with books and more to do with literacies, people, the human condition and social justice - and … much to do with learning"
O'Beirne is not arguing against books nor against the role of libraries in providing books. Instead his argument is that the focus needs to shift from the stock to the users;
"The library needs to focus on learners; it needs to embed an understanding of the needs of learners in both traditional and computer-supported learning into every activity. This shift of emphasis needs to be championed by library leaders and set before the users of the service in a clear way."
Ronan O'Beirne will be the keynote speaker at the SINTO Members' Day on the 27th July this year. This is an opportunity to hear his views and debate the issues raised for the profession.

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