3 things about librarianship after 10 years

This post was originally published on this site

So I celebrate my 10th anniversary in  Academic librarianship at the end of this month – Aug 2017.

Yes, I have been a academic librarian for 10 years, where did all the time go?

When I first began as a librarian, the very first version of the iPhone had just launched in the US and Facebook had just opened access to the public a year ago, kicking off the mobile and social media revolution.

ResearchGate, Academia.edu, Mendeley was still a year away and were soon competing with a ton of research social network rivals . In the search area, we were all talking about “next generation catalogues” (e.g. aquabrowser, Encore), and were excited about adding “social features” such as tagging, relevancy ranking and facets to our catalogues to make it “like amazon”. Article searching wise, we were using federated search (encompass just went down before I came in and was later replaced by Innovative’s research pro), Web scale index based discovery like Summon was still 2 years away even for the earliest adopters.


As a newbie librarian, I remember joining Twitter, starting to blog and engaging in discussions on Library 2.0 (anyone remember the craze over library toolbars, RSS, widgets?), worrying over social media etiquette when interacting with students as a librarian and once I bought my first smartphone in 2009, presenting and attending  conferences around mobile services like M-Library (which ended after 6 editions in 2014).

I even spent 3 months back then almost nightly in SecondLife with visions of becoming a virtual librarian there as my institution then had a virtual campus . That didn’t pan out of course, though I did get to know the regulars fairly well.

Postcard at virtual campus – taken 2009
I found the following 10 year old slides online from a ex-colleague of mine (then head of automation), that pretty much summarised the state of what academic libraries were thinking about back then in the region.

Reading the slides fills me with such nostalgia of how things have changed and how much I have learnt since then.

Finding a specific article then was a clumsy affair where you had to first look up the journal title to see which database had the right coverage, go there and search for it again. I remember teaching it to tons of freshman who probably mostly didn’t bother to do it once they were out of the class. Of course, today Google Scholar and Web Scale Discovery changed all this (except for our poor law students!)

Open Access? It was not even a blip in my radar, though like many librarians I knew about the Journal Impact Factor which was the only game in town really (Scopus was still new).

I can (and did in another draft of this post) go on in detail about this and other changes in the last 10 years. These changes includes the increasing focus on electronic resource management, shifting from library management systems that managed print as primary to ones that now treated electronic resources as first class citizens, cloud services, changes in how library spaces are used and managed etc but I realized this account while interesting to some would be somewhat subjective and you can consult better sources in these areas if you are so inclined.

But enough nostalgia!

What I would like to share here with you dear readers is 3 things, I have learned about academic librarianship in the last 10 years.

1. We are not the centre of our user’s universe now (if we ever were)

When I think back of some of the missteps and failures of my own personal projects and the library industry as a whole one thing stands out. The idea that we are central to our user’s lives has been a big part of it.

In many library memes, we are told that libraries and by extension librarians are the centre of the University campus. We trumpet our strengths compared to Google, we are the “original search engine”, we are a search engine with a heart etc.

Yet, while some of this might be true , it’s also true that  we are no longer the centre of our user’s life (if we ever were) and it’s very dangerous to act like this. As OCLC puts it, we should  bethinking about the library in the life of the user instead of the traditional model of thinking of the user in the life of the library. It’s easy to say this but it’s ingrained in some of us to act as if we are the only game in town.

Take a recent story – institutional repositories

The story of institutional repositories is a complicated one, but one perhaps over-simplified way of seeing it is that librarians created expensive repository systems naively expecting researchers to self deposit their articles into it. The thinking was if they were doing it on their own accord to arxiv, surely they would do it for the institutional repositories manned by their friendly respected librarians, Yes?

Not only did most of them resist this, we were shocked when some of them started self-depositing in commercial systems like ResearchGate, Academia.edu which had unclear business models and licensing when there were perfectly trustworthy alternatives in institutional repositories.

This isn’t a post on institutional repositories so I won’t belabor the point, still as we are now starting to ask our researchers for deposits of research data, have we learnt what went wrong? Can we do better?

Related to this is I think many of us librarians have been guilty of not looking beyond the library at the wider environment we work in. By this, I don’t just mean look at higher education trends (something suspect we are not all uniformly good at as well) but also learning about how businesses in the publishing and library tech industry work.

This reluctance to look beyond the library, assuming things will remain unchanged and learn how the business environment works perhaps explains the shock librarians express when Elsevier purchased SSRN and then again when they purchased Bepress. As a librarian asked on Twitter, how many times will it take before librarians are not shocked?

Adding to the danger is the problem of library bypass. Librarians serve as intermediaries and like all intermediaries today, we are in danger of been cut out as the middleman. Publishers can market directly to our users using social media and email, when say JSTOR goes down, our users directly feedback to JSTOR on their facebook pages.

One thing that academic libraries used to have on their side was a better understanding of local conditions , on the needs of our users. Today, many companies, like Elsevier, Digital Science are working their way into our user’s workflow and with superior analytics they are starting to get better data on what our users want.


Jeroen Bosman and Bianca Kramer – 101 innovations in Scholarly communications – research workflow as at 2016 (now outdated)

Changes in the scholarly communication may also result in many publishers moving towards a services based company and some of the services such as benchmarking analytics reports, research Information Management systems would be marketed directly to non-library campus units like research office/provost office etc.

So what can we do? In the last 10 years, I have seen a slow realization of this issue , which probably explains the current interest in ethnography and UX in libraries. We need desperately to understand our users and see how the library can fit into their lives rather than the reverse.

At the macro level, Roger Schonfeld, and Lisa Hinchliffe have written on the need of librarians to have a better understanding of corporate environment and for the need of a coherent strategy to handle such shifts.

A personal confession

On a personal note, as a librarian I have been extremely guilty of the sin of viewing everything through the lens of the library first and foremost. For example, notice my post starts with a description that is almost completely a library centric account.

My intense interest in many aspects of academic librarianship (I have rarely met a domain of librarianship I wasn’t curious about) , coupled with the ease of interacting and learning with librarians world-wide means that I can and do operate in a echo chamber of librarians.

It’s a much bigger echo chamber than what past generations of librarians could easily maintain since it spans internationally thanks to the internet and particularly Twitter but it’s still a echo chamber nonetheless.

The library ecosystem is so huge these days, one can happily be sucked into it, playing with library tools, presenting at only librarian conferences & webinars , serving on library association committees and  generally spending a lot of time interacting with one’s peers locally or internationally.

And you know what, when you begin your career, you will mostly be rewarded if you do such things. Building a strong network of librarians, becoming known by other librarians, ensures you will always be up to date on the latest library trends and can get help if you need it. This is something I have benefited from giving me the confidence to take on novel and new areas in librarianship, as I always get help from “my tribe” if I need it.

But there’s a trap here. The more you do this, the more you need to be careful not to fall into a library centric view. You might be able to muster up the best state of art librarian consensus on a new area of the time but I would argue this often can lead you up blind alleys since  librarians can lack the diversity of views to judge the right course of action in new areas.

I’m not sure what the solution is beyond asking librarians to interact more with people outside the conference, e.g go to non-librarian conferences (this already happens to some extent with librarians working in scholarly communication), but I guess the incentive structure should also empathize and reward interaction outside the libraries.

Essentially as a librarian you have a decision to make. How much of your time should be spent honing the craft of librarianship  and how much should be spent looking outside librarianship.

Also the next 10 years in academic libraries I believe is likely to be even more disruptive than the last 10, with all the changes occurring in  higher education , scholarly communication and technology in general , looking out and interacting outside the library filter bubble is likely to be even more important.


2. No individual library or librarian can do it alone

This might seem to contradict the earlier point but I think it’s clear to me that no single library can go it alone. I looked up the endownment fund of mighty Harvard University and it’s around 37.6 billion by coincidence this just about equals the market capitalization of Reed Elsevier/RELX.
While the elites like MIT Library, Harvard Library can lead, alone either of them cannot start a revolution, not when dealing with the big 5 Academic publishers who collectively control 50% of all journal articles which accounts for a market of 19 billion.
It is not just only a matter of financial muscles but also of mass. Any single academic library no matter how wealthy, will have a user base that is only a minuscule percentage of all users in the market and the big 5 academic publishers have vast power over all the eyeballs.
The solution to this is of course something that many libraries and countries have figured out years ago with the forming of consortium at regionally and nationally levels to increase their collective bargaining power.

These days the struggle over who will ultimately control the infrastructure of the scholarly communication system is pretty unbalanced. On one side you have half a dozen of academic publishers who have name recognition and mind-share of scholars all over the world. On the other side you have hundreds if not thousands of University libraries which collectively are arguably as powerful but tend not to be able to organize effectively as a cohesive force.

For example, It’s unclear if the efforts of organizations like Confederation of Open Access Repositories (COAR) for institutional repositories to coordinate regional groupings like SHARE will be up to the challenge, but certainly individual libraries or even consortiums would have a huge uphill battle going it alone.

3. Keep learning, keep trying – create value

I admit to be a world champion worrier. I constantly worry what I provide as a librarian isn’t providing sufficient value to our users. That my skills and knowledge will eventually be outdated by new developments. I try to be as kept up as possible so my users don’t have to be except in their areas of expertise. I feel very bad if a user asks me a question and I don’t know the answer (and even worse if I can’t figure it out after researching it for a day).

My general rules of thumb? If what you know or teach can be found by someone else with no knowledge googling from scratch in 5-30 minutes, you probably don’t provide that much value anyway.

Are these standards too high? Too lax? I’m pretty sure I don’t reach that ideal all the time, but that’s how I feel.

Still, I think this mindset helps ensure that as a librarian, I will not get too complacent. I like to think in my 10 years in librarianship, my presence has been a net gain to society, the institutions I served in and our users.

So never stop learning. Whether it is information literacy, design thinking, project management , electronic resources management or just coding, keep at it. Curious about an area of librarianship, you don’t know much about? These days there is so much information out there from Blogs, mailing list and in particular webinars by vendors, library associations or even occasionally of real life conferences, have become the norm in the last 10 years there is no excuse not to scratch your itch. Or just reach out to your colleague!

Remember as a librarian you often represent all of us. Sadly, I’ve seen too many students, faculty who have encountered less than capable librarians and have as a result dismissed librarians as a whole as mere administrators, or who teach things that are self evident.


This post has taken me a long time to write. I wrote at least 5 quite different drafts of this, approaching it from different angles with different tones and I’m pretty sure I still haven’t nailed it.

Still, I will leave it as it is and let the chips fall. If I’m still a librarian and blogging in 2027, it might be interesting to review this again.


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