Beyond Access

I was honored when Rory Litwin asked me to write for Library Juice. I have followed the blog for some time now and have always found it a source of interest. As this is my first post, I thought I’d write on an issue that I find to be central to librarianship, namely, the tension between our role to provide general access to information and our roles as reference librarians or research assistants. Historically, librarians were responsible for relatively discrete collections about which few people had much knowledge. Consequently, the main service that librarians provided was to help patrons find resources — particularly the best resources — available in their collections. Furthermore, there wasn’t much chance of accessing holdings outside of those collections, so when librarians could acquire more resources, they needed to be very sure that the new acquisitions were the best that were available. Librarians were constantly making judgments about the quality of the resources that they were providing to their patrons.

To some extent this is still true, but during the past half century or so, our profession has concentrated on expanding access. Our roles as reader advisors, research assistants, and collection curators have declined, and our role in linking our patrons to vast storehouses of information through interlibrary loan systems, aggregated databases, and automated search tools has expanded. In many circles, arranging access seems to be taken to be the whole of librarianship. It isn’t surprising, then, that the success of Google and other popular search engines has caused such anxiety among librarians. If access is our sole reason for being, then what do we do when our “competitors” can satisfy our patrons’ needs more quickly, easily, and effectively?

Recently, I’ve come to think that we should remember that providing access is only one of our professional responsibilities, and that it probably has become overemphasized. We need to reengage in the activities we left behind when we turned our efforts so much to providing access. In a time when information availability is exploding, we should remember that our patrons need guidance through the morass of data that lurks behind every poorly constructed search. We can do this, not just by “going to where they are” and offering to do their searches for them, but by seeking out the best resources and making those particular resources more readily available.

Practically speaking, this means that librarians must begin to de-emphasize the value of access in general and re-emphasize their role as research assistants. We need to provide our patrons with the reader advisory services that were once a core element of our work. In academic libraries, this can be done most readily by creating guides to the literature, but those guides need to go far beyond what we see in most guides.  They need to be more than simply lists of useful databases and video tutorials on using various search tools.  They need to do such things as introduce patrons to the nature of the field of study, provide a history of its devepment, and identify its most important figures, and its classic and important current works.  Library administrations will need  to hire subject specialists with significant expertise,  who are potentially capable of teaching courses in the departments they serve. 

Of course, this presents a challenge to our desire to remain “neutral” or “unbiased” with regard to the subject matter that we make available, but we need not shy away from the challenge. We must conscientiously identify the information that we judge to be most worthwhile, while remaining reasonably humble about our abilities to discriminate the wheat from the chaff.  We need to exercise our  right to the freedoms that our teaching colleagues have in expressing our views about our fields of expertise.  We owe it to our patrons to apply our professional judgment about the value of the resources available to them and not simply serve as human cogs in an access providing machine.

4 comments on “Beyond Access

  1. I concur. It is not all about access but so much more. Access is not the problem to be solved now-a-days. Anybody and everybody can find stuff. The problem to solve is to figure out what do with the stuff people find. –ELM

  2. Incidentally, with regard to professional “neutrality”, I like to point out that, in even positing such a seemingly uncontroversial* thing as a “freedom to read”, that is already taking a stand and is already not “neutral”.

    (*It only seems uncontroversial because of the overall success of the Enlightenment project thusfar)

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