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Along with a few others, I've been asked to blog the content of Betsy Wilson's talk this morning. I expect that there'll be some duplication in our notes, so I won't post my extensive (exhaustive?) version here in its entirety. If you weren't able to attend and would like more detail, or links to some of the projects Betsy mentioned, you can find a faithful-as-possible-to-the-words-Betsy-spoke version here.
And for a summary version and some thoughts...
Betsy offered four strategic areas for investment for academic libraries heading into the uncertain 21st century. They are:
Like many of us, Wilson foresees a fork in the road for academic libraries: depending on how we respond to changes in the ways information is produced and consumed, we may atrophy or we may transform into vibrant, robust, trusted institutions with a very different profile from the "book cathedrals" of the past.
Betsy's comments rang true for me. As a librarian I'm only five and a half years old, but it's clear to me that great changes have taken place even within the space of my own career. I no longer feel that there is any particularly assured future for academic libraries, the book, or professional librarians.
Within my career, I've seen Google Scholar overtake scholarly databases as a discovery tool for a huge proportion of the information our students need to find. Google Book Search is digitizing our books at a stupendous rate. Undergraduates now spend more time on the Internet than they do watching television --imagine how much less time they spend reading books. (Or consult the NEA's Reading at Risk study, which is conveniently available online.) It seems not impossible that within my professional career, academic libraries may have capitulated to campus demands for space and resources, that physical books may be located in remote storage, and that librarians may be a rare or very different-looking breed. This is, in part at least, a strategy suggested by David Lewis in his recent piece in College & Research Libraries.
Obviously, there's a great deal to be said here, and greater minds than mine are at work on the question of how academic libraries can adapt intelligently to this massive sea change. (This is why it's a good thing we have people like Betsy dropping in to share their thoughts with us.) I can say, however, that despite all this uncertainty I left today's session feeling upbeat and optimistic.
Betsy's talk reminded me of an article I read recently in Dwell magazine (which is not conveniently available online.) It was in an issue devoted to sustainability, and it posited that we are all poised at a fork in the road between the Unthinkable and the Unimaginable. The Unthinkable is a future of chaotic scarcity, increasing inequity and poverty, pollution, natural disasters and, as Betsy mentioned, an ever-growing divide between developing and developed nations. The Unimaginable is the alternative: the creative, unconventional, optimistic ways we choose to change ourselves and our habits of thought, so that we can all survive.
I appreciated that Betsy touched on the world outside of libraries several times in her talk this morning. It's helpful to remember to look outside ourselves, outside of our love of process and our own particular fears about change, and to notice how others are coping with change. It's also helpful to keep the fork in the road in mind, because the world doesn't often change in a cataclysmic way--it changes by degrees, over a period of weeks or months or even years, and it's easy to forget it or ignore it until it's too late.
I'd love to see our library use those weeks and months and years to transform into the Unimaginable (or at least the currently Unimagined)--a robust, flexible, trusted hub for the dissemination of knowledge and information to our users. Wherever (and whoever) they might be next.