“The most important thing that the library does is make it possible for me to get the articles that I need to do my research. That is absolutely the most important.”
This is what one of our most prominent and influential researchers said to me and a colleague the other day when we were interviewing her as part of our environmental scan of the University related to data services and technology infrastructure. Does she believe that the library provides other services? Yes. Does she think that we may have a role or two to play in the areas associated with data services and/or eScience? Without a doubt. But when asked the question, “What role can the library play in supporting your research?,” without hesitation, this was her answer. Our researchers cannot work without access to the literature and the library provides that. That role is the most important one.
I think it’s easy to interpret this comment in a negative light, after all, librarians have little of nothing to do anymore with making access to journals possible, at least not beyond negotiating license agreements and fulfilling the occasional ILL request. Once in awhile, I still walk up to the 3rd floor of the stacks, pull a print journal off of the shelf, and scan and email an article for a researcher too busy to walk to the library and get it him/herself. I don’t mind. It’s good exercise. But in terms of the many tasks that librarians once did that made articles accessible, from cataloging to systems design and maintenance, these are jobs that we have long since passed along to third party vendors; OCLC, Serials Solution, EBSCO, Thomson Reuters, and the like. These are the businesses that build the databases, aggregate and package our resources, provide the catalog records and metadata for articles, journals, books, et al. Librarians today simply purchase these products, put them in place for our users, and then let them use them. Oh sure, we still do some teaching and training and even a little searching ourselves from time to time, but when it comes to the most important thing that we do, in the eyes of countless patrons, we do very little. At least I do very little in that regard.
But I don’t necessarily want to see that as a negative thing. Instead, I hope that it’s something that we don’t lose sight of, because when it comes to what people think about the library, they still, overwhelmingly, think of us as a collector and provider of resources. In my library’s case, those resources are journals and journal articles. In the public library’s case, those resources are books. Fight it all you want, call yourself what you want, offer any number of other services that you wish, but for now, it remains the most important thing. People expect us to build collections of relevant resources and then make those collections easily available to them. If we do nothing else, we’re expected to do this.
This is likely because the task of building collections and making them accessible is what we do best. I’ll argue that it’s certainly what we do better than anyone else on my university campus. It’s what makes the library different from an archive or a museum or a storage unit or a high performance computing center or a networked drive or shared folders or… the Internet. Like an archive, we preserve things, but we don’t treat our things so special that you need white gloves to touch them. Like a museum, we collect things, but unlike the Metropolitan Museum of Art that’s only able to display a small percentage of the more than 2 million pieces in its permanent collection at any one time, we make our entire collection available to our patrons at all times. Like a high performance computing center, we accept and store data, but we also supply the necessary metadata to it and link it to other relevant sources so that users can both find it and put it in context. We share, just like folders on a shared drive, but (hopefully) in a much more organized and logical fashion.
In other words, the library has some very unique and very important characteristics in our role as collector and provider of resources. The ability of a patron to get an article easily may well be the tree that they see as the most prominent and we need to not lose sight of that tree as we’re trying hard to see the bigger forest. Instead, I think we need to remember to see both. Listening to this particular researcher this week, I was reminded to do just that.