Six impossible things before breakfast.

A library science student's perspective on life, the universe, and everything.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Brave New (Digital) World

In a reading on the selection and evaluation of reference sources, the author (Linda Smith) quoted Michael Buckland's concern about one aspect of our libraries' increasing digital collections: unlike "old fashioned" shelves of shiny, official-looking reference tomes, digital reference sources have the distinct disadvantage of being invisible. How does it affect users when they cannot "see" the collection? And what sorts of digital guides will need to be invented to take the place of a librarian's careful arrangement of a physical reference section?

I think that this is going to be a big issue for libraries in the coming years. Today on our campus, when you walk into most of the libraries you see a computer long before you ever get to the books. In fact, some of the library layouts could have you wandering around for ages wondering "where are the books?" If our reference collections are moving to a digital format (and it's very likely that this will be not only cost-effective, but also most efficient and useful from a research perspective) we will have to figure out how to help users navigate these new electronic waters. I believe that with the complexity of search options and the capability of nearly endless storage, virtual reference collections are going to bring tremendous advantages, but because of their "invisible" nature, if we don't find a way to show people where they are, users have a much lower chance of finding a digital collection on their own than they would a glossy, leather-bound reference book section of indexes and encyclopedias.

So what will the road signs to our digital collections look like? A large part of it will be clarifying library websites to indicate where virtual references can be located and how to search specific queries once you get there. But what about the individual who comes into the library looking for that shiny reference book? Should they find a sign on the empty shelf telling them to go look it up on the computer? A lot of articles being written today by library and information science professionals address the need for fairly drastic change in librarians' job descriptions. People soon will no longer need a reference librarian for the majority of the tasks and services that were probably 90% of their jobs during the last decades. But that doesn't mean they won't still need reference librarians. They will need librarians to guide them through the use of virtual reference collections that will be exponentially larger than the library's physical reference section ever was. And many of the traditional roles of librarians (such as selecting and evaluating resources) will still be just as important, they will just take place in new formats and within new technologies.

I'm excited about the library science revolution that I'm hopefully going to get to play a part in. I think there is a lot of opportunity for change and improvement today. And I guess the other side to this post is that I really, really hope that when I graduate in two years, I'll still be able to find a job.

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