What libraries are for. (take 3)

Last night, I posted my attempt to sort through a few ideas about the role college libraries play for students and faculty. I went to bed bothered and woke up bothered. That post was well-intended but missed the actual points. I went too far in some areas and not far enough in others. I created the wrong impression that most information is easily available online. This may or may not be true. What I did not say is that, increasingly, the best information (timely, reputable, accurate, quality-reviewed) is not available for free online. More and more often, the information and cultural content we expect to be free is locked up behind pay walls. You have to pay to access. Sometimes, you have to pay to discover. This is a problem libraries help solve.

Consider this post as third draft of an evolving essay on what libraries are about. The first two iterations are here and here.

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I serve as library director for a community college in Tennessee. The work is fun, challenging and, at present, a bit bewildering. Models of library service are quickly changing. The internet has matured and now underpins pretty much everything we do. The internet provides the plumbing for how we work, learn, communicate, socialize and entertain ourselves. Our daily lives are exponentially richer with information.

Information is a loaded term. What we call “information” is usually a mental short cut used to discuss a bunch of processes, experiences and feelings for which there is no good language. Information isn’t a thing. Information is a lot of things. Think books, articles, essays, stories, documentaries, data, code and conversation. It makes the head swim. All of these things and much more get packed together as information. This is where problems set in.

Librarians have been trained to believe that our primary job is to provide information. This is only true in a minimal sort of way. Librarians who still believe their primary function is to provide information are freaking out right now. Providing information is what Google does. Google does that much faster and much easier. Google still doesn’t always provide some kinds of information as well as library collections but that is often beside the point because faster and easier almost always trump better.

People are lazy. Don’t get upset. I’m not just talking about you. I include myself here. If I can find something quickly and easily that meets my need “well enough”, I don’t dig deeper. I stop with Wikipedia or the first 5 links on Google. Librarians who still believe we are competing with Google are at loose ends. The war is over. We lost. Come back home.

It turns out, we were never actually really at war. Librarians have adopted the tools of the information revolution and are using them in incredible ways. It is time to stop despairing and hand wringing. Librarians have never before had access to such powerful, efficient and effective tools. We can pick up these tools and use them to begin a library renaissance, but first we need to understand what it is we need libraries to do. Here a few suggestions:

  1. We need for the information that is available today to also be available tomorrow.
  2. We need to lower the cost barriers of information getting and sharing.
  3. We need to curate collections that create context so that resources are available in ways that speak to each other and contribute to a broader, more accurate understanding. This is done partly through our decisions about what we collect. Maybe more importantly, this is done through decisions about what we don’t collect.
  4. People seek relevance. Information now comes to us. We don’t often expect to have to go to information. The ease of getting “informed” tricks our minds into believing that all information is created equal. The problem is that information comes to us randomly and may or may not contribute anything useful. Lots of signals create lots of noise. Libraries can reduce the noise by selecting a few signals to spark good ideas.

This last point gets to what I want to say. I work with college students. Most of them have grown up in the world where the internet has always been available. Sometimes I get depressed because they don’t seem curious. This is baffling. We live in an unprecedented age of knowledge creation and sharing. As a species, we are using incredible information technologies to learn faster, share that learning and increase the human body of knowledge at an exponential pace. Why aren’t my students more curious?

I see two reasons. First, many are survivors of a drill-and-kill educational system that trained them to suppress their natural curiosity. Curiosity slows things down. Curiosity is the enemy of the highly structured lesson plan. They come to college stunted by a kind of intellectual PTSD. They are master gatherers of information but they choose the information they gather selectively according to one major critieria: “is this going to be on the test?” If yes, they capture the information in notes, review and regurgitate. If not, they omit and move on.

This isn’t really their fault. Like all traumatic stress survivors, they need counseling, perspective and time.

There is a second problem, and it effects all of us. We treat our information streams like an all you can eat buffet. I’ll take a little of this and little of that and make a crazy meal of sorts that may or may not nourish me properly. Our minds are stressed by the speed at which we are required to assimilate new information. We have trouble making time to find meaningful associations. We are ridiculously well-informed but often feel like our minds are out of our control. We stop putting things together. We stop having new ideas. We are overwhelmed. We are bored and restless and seek endless entertainment to distract ourselves from our ennui.

Libraries should promote and reward curiosity. This may be the most important contribution my library can offer my college. How do we do this? I’m still working through that. I need your ideas.

We need to think of the library less as a research paper tool shed and more as an intellectual supplement, something that amplifies the teaching and learning that occurs in the classroom.

We have the tools. We can develop the expertise. It is definitely time to stop moaning about the lack of curiosity and engagement inside our students’ minds. The college library is not an antiquated artifact of pre-internet society. The college library, the real college library, might just now be getting born. A kind of mind laboratory where new ideas are made, tested, and improved. A safe haven that rewards curiosity and encourages deeper exploration.  A relevance factory where information is just raw material, not an end product, and where ideas get connected with experience. That is how relevance gets made. That is how learning happens.

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