• August 28, 2015

Academic Library Autopsy Report, 2050

"Insensible of mortality, and desperately mortal."

The academic library has died. Despite early diagnosis, audacious denial in the face of its increasingly severe symptoms led to its deterioration and demise. The academic library died alone, largely neglected and forgotten by a world that once revered it as the heart of the university. On its deathbed, it could be heard mumbling curses against Google and something about a bygone library guru named Ranganathan.

Although the causes of death are myriad, the following autopsy report highlights a few of the key factors.

1. Book collections became obsolete. Fully digitized collections of nearly every book in the world rendered physical book collections unnecessary. Individual students now pay for subscriptions to any of several major digital-book vendors for unlimited access. The books may be viewed online at any time or downloaded to a portable device. Some colleges have opted for institutional subscriptions to digital-book collections, managed by their information-technology departments. Most of these collections originated in physical libraries, which signed their own death warrants with deals to digitize their books.

2. Library instruction was no longer necessary. To compete with a new generation of search engines, database vendors were forced to create tools that were more user-friendly, or else risk fading into obscurity. As databases became more intuitive and simpler to use, library instruction in the use of archaic tools was no longer needed. Almost all remaining questions could be answered by faculty (see No. 3) or information-technology staff (see No. 4). It was largely the work of academic librarians that led to most of these advances in database technology.

3. Information literacy was fully integrated into the curriculum. As faculty incorporated information literacy into their teaching, it became part of the general curriculum of colleges. It was the persistence of librarians, who in the academic library's dying days lost faith in their ability to impart useful knowledge to students, that led to the universal adoption of campuswide information-literacy standards drawn up by the Association of College and Research Libraries. Librarians also played a key role in the development of the new curricula that included information literacy.

4. Libraries and librarians were subsumed by information-technology departments. Library buildings were converted into computer labs, study spaces, and headquarters for information-technology departments. Collection development became a mere matter of maintaining database subscriptions recommended by faculty. Cataloging became the exclusive purview of the vendors of digital-book-and-journal collections (who frequently hired former librarians to assist with the process). Some members of the remnant of former librarians have now taken jobs with their colleges' information-technology departments.

5. Reference services disappeared. They were replaced by ever-improving search engines and social-networking tools, along with information-technology help desks that were relatively inexpensive to run. Without the need to worry about faculty rank, tenure, and professional pay grades, most colleges are reporting about the same level of student satisfaction for a fraction of the price. It was librarians who first provided evidence—through the development of "tiered reference" services, in which initial questions were fielded by nonlibrarians—that queries could be answered by low-wage employees (including student workers) with minimal training.

6. Economics trumped quality. Some administrators admit that the old model of libraries and librarians yielded outcomes theoretically superior to those of the new model: personal service, professional research assistance, access to top-quality information sources. But so few students were taking full advantage of the available resources that the services were no longer economically justifiable. Ever since it became so easy and inexpensive to find adequate resources, paying significantly more for the absolute best was no longer an option for perpetually cash-strapped colleges. It was the widespread adoption of early tools like Wikipedia and Google Scholar by librarians that opened the door to the realization that traditional academic libraries and librarians were an expendable luxury.

At the same time, the death of the academic library is being hailed by many as progress and the logical next step in the evolution of information.

In summary, it is entirely possible that the life of the academic library could have been spared if the last generation of librarians had spent more time plotting a realistic path to the future and less time chasing outdated trends while mindlessly spouting mantras like "There will always be books and libraries" and "People will always need librarians to show them how to use information." We'll never know now what kind of treatments might have worked. Librarians planted the seeds of their own destruction and are responsible for their own downfall.

Brian T. Sullivan is an instructional librarian at Alfred University.


1. notsurprised - January 02, 2011 at 06:50 pm

This column reminds me of boarding a flight about 7 or 8 or 10 years ago. Instead of just checking in with them like I always had, the ticket agents were showing me how to use the automatic check in kiosks. They were beaming with pride at the new technology. When I pointed out that these nice folks were likely putting themselves out of a job, they just kept smiling and said, well, there really isn't anything else we can do about it.

Which is true. You are too hard on librarians and their willingness to open up their collections to digitization, as if a secretive guild approach would have in any way thwarted the onward march of technology. The reality is that academic libraries really are an outmoded technology, in a way that they weren't even five or six years ago. But how could anyone have stopped it? They couldn't, just like the record producers and DVD distributors can't, either.

I realize this is cold comfort to librarians out there, and I hardly mean to sound gleeful at the triumphant, massive spread of super-available knowledge. But it is sort of an amazing thing to have witnessed the abrupt out-moding of one of humankind's great institutions. It sure happened fast.

2. rosmerta - January 03, 2011 at 09:50 am

Is Mr. Sullivan serious, or merely using irony to stir the pot? I would contest each one of his points. Our book collections are far from obsolete - I am unaware of any major digital-book vendor whose subscriptions would provide an adequate substitute. Spend any amount of time with a class of average freshmen, and see what you think of their library skills, which are marginal to nonexistent. Information literacy is far from being integrated into the curriculum; at most faculty pay it lip service while teaching their students to search the resources they themselves remember fondly from graduate school, without bothering to see what their current library actually offers. Libraries are still distinct and separate, as they should be, from IT departments, and reference services are alive and well; statistics for our department have been steady for the past five years. And librarians have been in the vanguard of those warning against the easy use of Wikipedia and other such unscholarly tools.

So far, economics has not trumped quality at our institution, but it is articles like these that could tempt our administration to spend less.

3. libct - January 03, 2011 at 10:45 am

Hmmm ... Sometimes librarians are among those most guilty of perpetuating negative (and inaccurate) stereotypes of their own profession. The librarians I know and work with--both at my institution and elsewhere--are working to chart a realistic course for the future of the library, not clinging to outmoded visions of library collections or services. It is challenging, given how quickly resources and technologies are evolving, but exhilarating at the same time. The increased access to resources that Mr. Sullivan describes are being welcomed by librarians, and they are not inconsistent with high-quality, innovative services or with the continued existence of the library. Of course libraries and librarians are changing radically. But the demise of the old stereotypical library is not the same as the death of the library itself. Pat Tully, University Librarian, Wesleyan University (CT)

4. davidcarr - January 03, 2011 at 10:50 am

Except for the sixth item -- which should read "Widespread ignorance of librarianship undermined librarians" -- Mr. Sullivan is wrong on every point. Those things did not happen, although some people like Mr. Sullivan think that they did. What did happen was that the leaders of libraries did not speak up as advocates, technological fantasies were marketed well, and the cost of knowledge increased without concomitant reason or value. And, of course, the world drank the tasty and simplistic Kool Aid of Google, Wikipedia, and social networks.

And another thing happened. As a former academic librarian who taught for three decades in major library programs at Rutgers and Chapel Hill, I would point out that library education schools have systematically deleted the ideas of public service, reference work, the organization and value of knowledge, and the library as an essential instrument of democracy from their curricula and research. The politics of graduate schools have allowed the thoughtless ascension of ambitious information scientists to drive librarianship into decline.

The finest and most passionate of my students have found their own best educations through apprenticeships and field placements with the very best librarians in practice. They will continue to make the invisible yet indelible differences in lives that librarians have always made.

5. ccplibrary - January 03, 2011 at 11:00 am

Oh I remember the same type of professional angst being uttered way back in 1993 when Mosaic rolled out. "It's the end of the Library profession!"' they cried. In fact what we found that, contrary to being obsoleted, we librarians were more necessary than ever. Rest easy my friends, those improved interfaces may look easy to us but I doubt the same will be true of our patrons for some time to come. I am all for improving them too but I don't think it spells the end of academic librarianship. Far from it.

Ruth Baker
Serials Librarian, Community College of Philadelphia

6. grellet - January 03, 2011 at 11:09 am

First of all, I'd like to hear more details on the "realistic path to the future" envisioned by the author.

I'd also like to point out that we do PLENTY of instruction sessions and PLENTY of research consultations with students at our institution. And I do not even bother to count the hours I spend answering queries by email. We haven't eliminated the Reference Desk, we've brought it to students' fingertips! SMART faculty members realize that students will not find the subject databases on their own and that they need instruction in identifying reliable online sources. And SMARTER faculty members even limit the number of free, non-academic websites students can use in their assignments. One thing certainly has not changed in academic librarianship: faculty remain our avenue of contact with the students. Those who believe that the "technology-savvy" students will find the quality sources on their own are soon unpleasantly enlightened.

Seriously, I don't know of any other professionals who tear their profession down the way librarians do or who willingly assist others in heaping blame on us. Either we are accused of not changing and adapting fast enough because we selfishly want to preserve our "gatekeeper" positions, or we're accused of selling out to Wikipedia. We librarians should instead be congratulating ourselves and recognizing our ability to adapt our services and resources to cutting edge technologies and to the way the new generations access and use information. (I have a son who just completed his undergrad degree and another who is currently a freshman. I can see from first-hand observation how their information seeking behaviors differ from mine at their age.) Our job is not made any easier by the fact that we have to deal with myriad vendors and products.

I'm touched by the author's concern that academic librarian positions are becoming rarer, but I really think this is not due to any fault of ours, nor is the situation unique to academic librarianship. Unfortunately, it is part of a much bigger picture in which professional positions of all sorts are being slashed on the flimsiest pretexts to save money.

Librarians of academia, be proud of yourselves!

barbara.quintiliano at villanova.edu

7. bsadler - January 03, 2011 at 11:55 am

I think the author has mistaken transformation for death. Academic libraries have indeed undergone huge changes in the kinds of services they offer, but for every service no longer needed, other services for which there is more demand have taken their place. Statistics specialists, digital humanities design consultants, computational research experts, subject specialists in emerging fields like nanotechnology engineering, these are just a few of the librarians I have worked with in the past few years. I'm a librarian, but it might not be obvious at first glance, because I'm also a software engineer working on ways for research teams at Stanford (and elsewhere! All our software is open source.) to put their research data on deposit at the library for long-term preservation.

Librarianship is re-inventing itself, but it's far from dead.

Bess Sadler
Stanford University Library

8. billdrew - January 03, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Does this person actually work in an academic library? Our library here at Tompkins Cortland Community College is alive and well despite budget problems and staff retirements and even some pending layoffs. I do not recognize the library he describes as a typical academic library.

9. fesmitty77 - January 03, 2011 at 12:23 pm

I must agree, having worked in an IT department as an undergraduate and having been at many campuses, I would not hesitate to say that IT help desks are woefully incapable of providing reference services. I concur with most of the above comments, Librarianship is evolving and adapting to meet the new challenges. Perhaps Mr. Sullivan's students are content with using IEEE and ARTstor, but most other institutions have students that are much more interested in using research materials that reach far beyond the capacities of databases and digitized collections. For many professions there is still a need for archivists and special collections. Upon discussing this article with a colleague that graduated from Alfred recently, he stated simply that he wished that he had the 'antiquated'training is discussed here.

10. erikagwen - January 03, 2011 at 12:31 pm

"Library instruction was no longer necessary."


It's still necessary, the problem is most students **THINK** they already know how to do it & faculty don't seem to care until what gets turned in is a failing paper.

11. duchess_of_malfi - January 03, 2011 at 12:54 pm

#6 describes every aspect of university life. Libraries are at the core not only of learning but civilization, so it is disappointing that the core of universities is not better protected, but it is the new reality. However, I don't think anyone can really believe the claim that librarians' use of Wikipedia is the cause of this, or of anything. (It's the first I've heard this claim, so I don't know if librarians do use and recommend Wikipedia heavily, but I'm surprise to hear the claim.)

I'm not a librarian and don't know about #4.

From my perspective as a social-science instructor, the other items represent a parallel universe that is very unlike the one in which I live. My students think "found it on the internet" means the same thing for USAToday in Ebsco, a journal article in Ebsco, the U.N. site, and RandomGuy's conspiracy website. Just helping them learn how to develop good search terms is a project. It might take a village to help them get somewhere, but the library and librarians are most of that village. Students need physical books, as do I, and they need to allow time to get them with ILL. Students need vast quanties of help, and often individualized help because they don't know what they need to know. And you're going to accept student satisifaction surveys as evidence of something meaningful? It makes me wonder if you have any experience trying to help students learn.

Bsadler @#7 is right. Libraries have changed. I can read all the articles for the main journal in my research field at home. I go to the library building a few times a year to borrow a book and mainly to put textbooks on reserve for students. But I'm a faculty member. Students need the physical building, and the people in it, more than ever--because they need to learn how to find information more than ever, and are less prepared to do so. Our librarians are informed, pleasant, and unbelievably patient. I am disappointed that someone in the job thinks so little of the importance of knowledge that he would ignore what, to me, are obvious facts.

12. timroberts - January 03, 2011 at 01:02 pm

Actually the Library has not died it changed.

Unfortunately, the profession of librarianship is chock full of lazy academics that would rather write a post mortem than to get out from behind their desk to find out how the needs of their users have evolved.

My advice to the author is to retire already; he is just taking up space.

13. digilib - January 03, 2011 at 01:16 pm

Let's not be so hard on Mr. Sullivan.

I think he's right on the core idea behind each of his bullets, but he reaches for the polemic and makes it easy for defenders of the "status quo ante networked information"

Had he settled for a title like "The Academic Library is Heading for Well-Deserved Obsolescence If Some Changes Aren't Soon Made"...well, I think there would be much less to fuss about.

14. jdmiller - January 03, 2011 at 03:26 pm

Upon my first reading of this piece, I was indignant, but I finally interpreted this essay as a future report from where the academic library is headed, if it (we) continue on our current path. This can be a positive or negative outcome (for librarians, libraries, and patrons), depending on the viewpoint you wish to take. For example, in this future, I would still have a paying job (positive), but it appears that my work wouldn't be what is typically defined as an academic librarian's career (mostly negative).

Regardless of if you think that the proposed future is positive or negative, it is entirely possible that this is where academic libraries are heading, unless we all want to make a change.

15. sullivan8500 - January 03, 2011 at 04:09 pm

Those of you who read this piece as futuristic are correct. The essay was originally submitted as "Academic Library Autopsy Report Summary, 2051." Without that context, the article reads quite a bit differently.

Brian T. Sullivan

16. sullivan8500 - January 03, 2011 at 04:49 pm

For the sake of accuracy, it was actually "Academic Library Autopsy Report Summary, 2050" not 2051!

17. jwr12 - January 03, 2011 at 05:17 pm

As the author clarifies in comments 15-16, the current headline obscures the piece, as it really was written as a post-mortem, rather than the j'accuse the headline creates. Clearly, many of the trends identified above are not the fault of librarians, per se.

THAT SAID, I do worry about well-meaning / bedazzled (or both) librarians willingly cooperating with the demise of the academic library. It seems to go down something like this: excited by new technologies, and seeking to position themselves as realists and mover/shakers within their institutions, the librarians in question embark on reforms meant to "free up resources" by scaling back on the complexity of in person service, and by extension the level of emphasis given to print within their work (since people need help using books to best advantage, these two elements are combined). At that point, we reach roughly where we are now: where the books are still there, but often in dissheveled stacks that are made unattractive by dust, disorder and the absence of informed aids. Meanwhile, the creation of and subscription to online databases eats every penny saved on labor, and then some. Which would be worrisome, if in fact one didn't anticipate that relatively soon all that online stuff will be provided free anyways, by some corporation; or at least, having been taught that all information is the same, new generations will simply treat it as such. At that point, one would expect that academic institutions will simply gradually kill the library budgets: who needs the middleman? What websearch skills do librarians really have that aren't similar to the ones that specialists in various disciplines will develop? Sure, some InfoSpecialists will come out of library schools; but the library itself will go away, like the video store. And for those of us who believe that in point of fact print collections can often be a superior form of information delivery, a TECHNOLOGICALLY superior form, for the purposes of academic research : well, we'll have to start all over again. Maybe if books go away, they can be presented as revolutionary in 20 or so years, and stage a comeback.

In any event, from my perspective, the possibility of the library's self-imposed obsolescence is all too real. Just today I received a notice from my school saying that because a book was available in electronic form, it would not be placed on reserve for my class. This is a thick, dense volume bristling with complex argument and unfamiliar terms. You're going to read that online? Really?

18. teedier - January 03, 2011 at 05:23 pm

This opinion piece is clearly IRONY folks. Hmmm ... Perhaps more telling than the allegorical content, is a raw sensitivity that obscures the lesson. Could it be that Mr. Sullivan is saying some "sooth?"

19. rogerbannister - January 03, 2011 at 10:33 pm

I've got a buggy whip factory I'm building. Any investors?

20. dirkf - January 04, 2011 at 06:18 am

You know what would complete the irony here? If students started citing this article not as satire but as fact, all because The Chronicle went with the traffic juicing headline over the accurately descriptive one.

If we weren't in the middle of a semester break, I'd bet it would have already happened.

21. jweinheimer - January 04, 2011 at 06:57 am

I guess I'm going to lay myself open because I have a completely different take on this. I am a librarian of some years' experience as well, and I have seen how electronic resources and the web have pretty much killed off science libraries. In a highly-provocative talk of Peter Murray-Rust (a chemist) (see the video at http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/campaigns/librariesofthefuture/debate), he tells the truth: he simply says that for the science, technology and mathematics (STM) fields, academic libraries are almost completely irrelevant.

To continue his line of thinking: the social sciences also need libraries less an less, certainly much less than only 10 years ago. Therefore, why would we believe that the humanities are somehow exempt from this trend? And anyway, is the purpose of libraries aimed primarily at the humanities, or is it equally for all fields? Already, we are seeing brand new possibilities with many new projects that are completely new and outside all of the traditional publisher/library controls, such as Google's Ngram Viewer http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/, which is already inspiring a lively debate. I think we all know this is only the first of many such projects.

Fortunately, Mr. Murray-Rust doesn't simply end there, but goes on to make several suggestions for some of the directions libraries should take. *In theory*, finding useful and reliable information should be easier today than ever before, but this makes a tremendous assumption: that people are much better in their searching skills than any I have witnessed. While somebody may be very good at using their computers to find hotel rooms to book on a specific date, to download a new app for their Iphone, or to look something up in Wikipedia, using that same computer to get enough reliable information to write a paper on the consequences of the fall of communism in Hungary, or to understand the techniques of Raphael's paintings, or for that matter, to get a decent idea of the performance of the Obama administration for purposes of deciding how to vote, are completely different tasks. People have troubles with those searches.

In the pre-computer days, people also had lots of problems with these same sorts of questions, but back then they would tend to find far too little--or nothing--using the card catalogs and paper indexes, while today they normally find far too much that is irrelevant. In the old days however, people had no choice except to ask a reference librarian for help, or just continue to struggle (as many did), but today with the web, there is always someplace else to go, or what I think many do: choose the easiest route by just giving up and accepting whatever the search engine spits out at them. The number of reference questions is clearly going down according to ARL statistics, and web masters know that people very rarely consult the help pages of a site. They just go someplace else or "Google" it.

I don't know what the solutions are, and nobody can know without trial and error, but librarians have to get out of the rah-rah! corner and face facts: they are watching their profession fade away. We have lost the sciences, almost lost the social sciences, and the humanities are endangered. I have no doubt that librarian skills are desperately needed today, but in different contexts and in different venues. We must discover what they are.

22. blendedlibrarian - January 04, 2011 at 09:16 am

It's fine to have articles like this to remind us that business as usual is often a formula for irrelevance when everything is changing all around us. Where I have a problem with this piece is that the author seems to want to have it both ways. On one hand he blames the demise of our libraries on academic librarians for failing to innovate (see the last paragraph about librarians "spouting mantras" like "there will always be books and libraries").

So you would think the proposed solution - although the author appears to have no actual recommendations for making sure this cautionary tale doesn't come to fruition - would be more creativity, innovation and trying new service and education delivery models (is that the realistic path to the future - what does that mean?). But in point #5 the author appears to be criticizing academic librarians for trying new, innovative approaches to delivering reference services.

So which is it Brian? Are we supposed to be afraid to try something new for fear that our faculty, students and administrators will see they don't need us anymore? Or are we supposed to stop repeating our time-tested ways and mantras which will inevitably lead us to obsolescence. You might want to try reading Collins' "How the Mighty Fall" to get a start on better understanding how failing organizations can turn things around. There are lots of ideas out there. We need to do more than just beat ourselves up over what could have been - even if it's just satire.

23. pucciot - January 04, 2011 at 10:02 am

Well, any academic librarian reading this in 2050 could sit back and feel good for a "Job Well Done".

They could merely feel that they had done their job so well that they are no longer needed in that capacity.
#1. Books become obsolete.
If they truely become obsolete. Then we don't need librarians to manage and provide access to then for the purpose of higher education. The previous generation of librarians have done such a good job of managing and providing access they are no longer needed.
#2. Library instruction was no longer necessary.
Wow, the previous generation of librarians created such fantastic tools, Good for them !
#3. Information literacy was fully integrated into the curriculum
The Holy Grail has been achieved !
#4. Libraries and librarians were subsumed by information-technology departments.
So what ?
#5. Reference services disappeared.
See #2.

#6 Economics trumped quality ?
The leaders of higher education should then hold heir heads in shame. Although, I suspect that some Institutions will maintain quality for the sake of prestige, in the long run.


24. referencegirl - January 04, 2011 at 11:44 am

Whatever. Hopefully the librarians at Mr. Sullivan's institution will be kind enough to ignore this ridiculous article and remain willing to help him.

25. katefu - January 04, 2011 at 12:43 pm

I agree with this article although I have noticed more use of the library by students now that they are not finding everything online and are less interested in online sources compared to social networking ones. But I think he needs to add another reason: academic librarians tend to be less interested in any of the subjects and focus more on information retrieval rather than information relevance and quality.

26. karin_wikoff - January 04, 2011 at 01:05 pm

This article is a joke, right? 5 of the 6 points are laughably incorrect -- while the last one is only true in some libraries where it has been forced on them by budget exigencies, not by choice.

27. karin_wikoff - January 04, 2011 at 01:05 pm

This article is a joke, right? 5 of the 6 points are laughably incorrect -- while the last one is only true in some libraries where it has been forced on them by budget exigencies, not by choice.

28. pharbeyond - January 04, 2011 at 01:09 pm

I read Mr Sullivan's piece as a future cautionary tale. I also agree with some of the posters above.

One thing I find fascinating is that whenever a piece like this comes out, people post mean spirited and snarky remarks and dismiss the authors points.

I do take his points, though I disagree with the death verdict: I think libraries are just ailing right now.

I should say before I being, that I have no doubt that many libraries and librarians are doing what I say below already- I would like to hear about what you do!

But not enough are.

Just this past week in a planning session in our library, one of the librarians said the most important thing in our libraries were our collections. I disagreed, and said I think the most important thing in our libraries are the people.

Collections, as Mr Sullivan says, and Eli Neiberger said in his video (...you know, the "libraries are screwed one")... local collections will soon be dead, because as far as our patrons are concerned, the internet and thus the world, is local.

Of course, this is not true of ALL local collections-I think we all know that.

But the larger point is that in the past 5 years of budget cuts at our library, the staff has been cut, while the collections budget only saw a 5% cut last year. "Collections are protected" has always been the rallying cry.

I think this is totally backward.In fact, I think that the people working in the libraries can and should in fact become MORE relevant in the future.

With the advent of so much technology, patrons can and do need more help and guidance than ever to navigate.

What good are 600+ databases if no one uses them, either because they never come to the library web site, or the interface is too clunky, or whatever. Would not 400 databases and a librarian on chat 24 hours a day for help be more valuable?

Thus I believe that the Academic Library of the future must be a more service oriented institution than simply a repository of or acccess to, materials. Also, as part of the service, librarians and staff cannot wait for students to come to them- they must inject themselves into the existing processes, and continually look for new ways to do this.

Additionally, Librarians need to be involved at the class level, not just the subject level. They need to be supplying "best of" lists TO students not just waiting for the students to come to the library website.

Putting up a long list of links to databases does not help a student- being on Blackboard and answering questions, pushing links, etc... will.

You can also teach Information Literacy as you perform these actions, in the context of their class; lead by example, don't require them to come to some boring workshop. As the post above said: "Students need vast quanties of help, and often individualized help because they don't know what they need to know."

I think then that this service-oriented vision will be what distinguishes the library from Google (Scholar, ebooks,etc...)because, I think that at some point, Google will approach a university and say "close down your library,fire your staff, and pay us XX for access to all our digitized collections. We'll even staff a virtual reference desk for you".

It will be tried! But, if libraries and librarians are seen as a vital SERVICE to the university community, that they are so ingrained in their universities curriculum as a partner, the personal level of service will be impossible for Google to emulate.

But this service orientation will require librarians to be more aggressive sales people of their expertise. More meetings with profs, more building of IT tools to allow integration, etc...

Your collection will not speak for you any longer, you must get out their and speak for yourselves.

29. jpetit - January 04, 2011 at 01:33 pm

"To compete with a new generation of search engines, database vendors were forced to create tools that were more user-friendly, or else risk fading into obscurity. As databases became more intuitive and simpler to use, library instruction in the use of archaic tools was no longer needed."

I would gladly take the death of the academic library in exchange for this. This isn't failure--this would be incredible success!

30. libed - January 04, 2011 at 01:35 pm

1. This is meant to be read as a futuristic warning - not fact. Calm down people.

2. Any librarian who truly believes libraries are obsolete is not a very good librarian. Why are you collecting a paycheck from a field you no longer believe in?

3. I am SO tired of these hysterical "Libraries are dying!" claims. Yes, the traditional library is a thing of the past, but libraries are evolving and changing DAILY. More and more of our users are logging on to our electronic databases, downloading our ebooks, communicating with us via chat, facebook and twitter, using our web based research guides etc, and watching our instructional videos and webinars than EVER BEFORE. Librarians are some of the most tech-savvy innovative people I know! The librarian of the future will assist thousands of patrons that they will never physically see. This does not make anything obsolete but the traditional format. The library as a thriving physical space is also making a comeback as academic libraries are becoming collaborative community centers with group study rooms and technology rich information common areas. It's amazing how much libraries have evolved just in the last 5 years. Never in my life have I seen a field that is so crippled by stereotypes and misconceptions.

31. lothlorien - January 04, 2011 at 02:36 pm

I am rather tired of hearing #1. Try this experiment. Take your Kindle/laptop/iPad in one hand, and a book in the other. Now, drop both from a height of about ten feet. Now toss it on the sand at the beach. I would do it, but I like my kindle, and won't destroy it. EReaders have their place, but they will never replace books, and I have never lost a book outright due to an obsolete file format or computer virus.

32. carrkent - January 04, 2011 at 02:38 pm

A couple of things caught my attention:

Point 2 is a joke, unless one believes that library instruction is about using tools alone.

In regards to Point 5, students will always need help regardless of the technology employed; again, it's only partially about the tool. Student satisfaction is a double-bladed axe. On one hand we want students to be satisfied, on the other, if students themselves create policy we as teachers/service people are doomed to their version of satisfaction. Universities that run themselves as if they were a commercial company, where their primary mission views education as a product first and foremost, will always side with their customers when push comes to shove.

For Point 3, if IL was simply a matter of integrating its structure into curriculum and then "poof" you have an information literate student body (wouldn't that be nice) I might agree with the premise. Information Literacy has always been primarily a library initiative and the idea that wholesale adoption of IL throughout a college curriculum predicates the end of librarians is a fanciful one that has little basis in fact. Have you spoken with the faculty about the additional duties such a integration would ensue? Or ever listen to those who have served on curriculum committees at how easy it is to come to consensus on anything? Good luck.

Overall, I found the over simplification of ideas in Death by Irony extraordinary. Yes, I know it is satire but notwithstanding, a couple of ideas come to mind:

1) In the current era of higher education administrators are in the business to make the university money and if cutting costs (including personnel) and growing enrollment is possible then it is part of the plan. Technology seems to many administrators to be the answer to their prayers: a magic way to encourage enrollment, educate from afar and provide needed service with only a few technicians for support.

2) There are many academic employees including library, faculty, and staff personnel, that are anxiety ridden about the technological movement they see changing the very nature of their jobs and perhaps making them obsolete. This is in essence what the article is about, and has been an ongoing theme in the Library profession since I've been in it.

The point is we know clearly that change is occurring in our profession and how we relate to that change is for many a most difficult decision to make. There may always be books and libraries but certainly the form of such is changing (at least in academics) to the digital form and model. From my limited vantage point of experience and in the current climate, our professional positions - at the very minimum - dictate what is necessary for us to learn or understand. If we want to be current to the change we must find the enthusiasm in understanding the dynamics of the change, adapting to it and envisioning what our profession may require of us in the future.

Only through promoting ourselves through our adaptive qualities can any professional longevity be guaranteed.

33. akafka - January 04, 2011 at 04:23 pm

FYI, Chronicle editors have changed the headline of this essay at the author's request.

34. 22277855 - January 04, 2011 at 07:57 pm

As so many pronostications, this dry humored one has its focus on 4-year undergrad settings including many with financial and even identity struggles. Much of what is said doesn't apply to specialized graduate work, or e.g. the irreducible-to-digitization aspects of much religious pedagogy, textuality, the iconic, etc. Our library inherited thousands of titles re LDS & its many branches (Mormoniana). As to digitizing it, we have no time, money or interest but we value it because there is significant demand for it. Brigham Young doesn't own these titles or won't loan them. This is but one counterexample to the notion that physical books neither will be used nor needed even in libraries.

35. sivavaid - January 05, 2011 at 06:49 am

Wait, the maladies of libraries (which hardly include lack of usership) are the fault of LIBRARIANS? The very people who have been pushing innovation and adaptation for 25 years? What world does this describe?

This piece and other futuristic fantasies about "dying" institutions and technologies suffer from a simple fallacy: that there is some mysterious market force that "kills" something. No, people with power explicitly decide whether to invest or divest in an institution.

The only threat to libraries is the ignorance of people who assume certain false things about books, students, faculty, and the information-seeking habits of people without any evidence to support their assumptions.

36. alexsim - January 05, 2011 at 08:59 am

I am an academic librarian and I think Mr. Sullivan has some very valid points. Currently we are facing huge budget deficit in our state, a state where quite a few citizens don't care if higher education loses most of its state funding. If library services can be cut, you can bet we'll be on the chopping block. And why? Well, can't undergrads get their research needs met by the internet? Isn't our Learning Commons taking over more and more floor space? Why do we need all those books anyway? Students can man the reference desk (giving out some very questionable answers to complex questions), freeing our librarians to attend ever more tedious and meaningless meetings and conferences where we're all preaching to the choir.

I do love my job, especially teaching groups and working with individual students and faculty. I also use technology as much as I can to disseminate information to our patrons. I think we do have an important place in the academic firmament, but I'm not sure if our users think that. All the marketing and "look at us" pleading will not change that. Oh well, I'll be long gone by 2050.

37. tbstoller - January 05, 2011 at 09:26 am

The IT department will not be able to take over reference until they learn to be service-oriented, and I am not holding my breath. We have an IT "Help Desk" in our library, but it is staffed only rarely and at irregular times. I, the librarian, am usually a student's first choice at IT-oriented questions. They resort only to IT when the problem requires adminstrative privileges that I do not have.

38. quidditas - January 05, 2011 at 09:45 am

"Just today I received a notice from my school saying that because a book was available in electronic form, it would not be placed on reserve for my class. This is a thick, dense volume bristling with complex argument and unfamiliar terms. You're going to read that online? Really?"

Maybe. If you've never dumped a classic from the Online Library of Liberty, for example, into a word document in order to immediately talk back to, say, Adam Smith in person then you've simply never really read:


I'm not arguing *at all* for the demise of print, but I'm not going to mark up your University's print collection with my commentary either, am I?

And that assumes I even have access to it--which brings up another point. When you put a physical text on file for your class, only one student has access to that text at a time. This is a real pain in the can for them, so the technology is opening up their access. It's further opening up access by removing the text from your imperial hold and returing it to circulation for the rest of the library's patrons. You may not have to consider that, but the library does.

I don't see why we can't we be flexible with new technologies while defending old ones that can't be replicated. ie., the book is still in the library's collection.

39. dmoser5 - January 05, 2011 at 10:21 am

Just in time for the American Libraries Association MidWinter meeting in San Diego and, as noted above, with the original title...Autopsy, indeed.

40. andrew0261 - January 05, 2011 at 10:41 am

As librarians many of us are primarily concerned with empowering our students & our colleagues in the [teaching] faculty, and that is one of our greatest strengths and what leads to "be flexible with new technologies while defending old ones"... I find it very satisfying to see the progress of many of the undergraduates, who as freshmen come to the library with little or no concept of how to research, and then recognize those same students as saavy scholars in their senior year.

41. kar88692 - January 05, 2011 at 11:56 am

James Thompson in his book "The End of Libraries," (1982)said essentially the same. As to who killed libraries, it was librarians and library schools. While they made use of technology, their choice was to have the technology emulate the linearity of the library process of the past. They missed the point.

There is much that libraries can contribute and they need not die. As Thompson pointed out, they can turn to the unique materials that they hold, preserve history and hire informed researchers who are trained in the vernacular of the subject disciplines they service. However, they will not do this. They are too inbread with those who have a myopic perspective on the function of libraries. Libraries are slaves to their linear thinking and to the monolith they have created, OCLC. Librarians are not researchers. Rarely do they hold graduate degrees in anything other than librarianship. Google has arisen out of the ashes of the inflexibility and lack of creativity of libraries.

Sadly, what we might very well lose is a fundamental requirement of a democratic society: free access to information

Karl-taking early retirement after over 30 years of working in two major research collections--disgusted with our Director and the direction of the profession.

42. etenner - January 05, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Though the piece is irony, just a quick reality check - will individuals much less libraries be able to afford subscriptions to the entire universe of academic publishing? I haven't noted any price reduction for STM titles. (Thanks mainly to E,B-W,& S!)

IMHO,the best "value added" component librarians (whether in a library or elsewhere)can offer is BETTER SUBJECT ANALYSIS. No wonder students prefer Google-type searching - they always get results and/or the prompt "Did you mean...?" Raganathan was right to argue for a "faceted" (keyword?) system to really retrieve information specific to one's needs. Yes, language changes over time and something can be referred to many ways, so a module matching movies, motion pictures, flicks, cinema, moving pictures, etc. would have to run behind the scenes. A collaboration between librarians doing subject analysis and IT people doing programming, could accomplish this.

Too pie in the sky? Do you really want to leave it to Google?

43. sand6432 - January 05, 2011 at 01:17 pm

University presses have had concerns similar to those evoked by this prognostication of the obsolescence of academic libraries. With scholars ever more able to communicate directly with each other, form online communities, and provide accreditation within their own groups, would presses as internediaries continue to serve a useful function? For a while press directors thought that bringing their presses under the protective umbrella of their campus libraries might be one way to survive since, of course, libraries would always be needed. Maybe that strategy has only short-term viability? Perhaps bringing the press under the aegis of the Athletic Department might be more realistic? --- Sandy Thatcher

44. kosboot - January 05, 2011 at 01:40 pm

Regarding point 1, as the Google Books deal has shown, not every author/publisher wants to make their books electronically available.

I work in a music library - so I know that only a tiny fraction of music is available in electronic form, and it's not because of lack of digitization hardware/software. The legal issues involving music (and I assume other materials like graphic images) are complex - sometimes much more so than a book. So don't be so sure that *every* book and periodical will be electronically available 10 or 20 years from now. (It's awfully hard to read music on a variety of instruments if you're faced with a monitor.)

Additionally, addressing point 2, I find a lot of people are woefully uneducated in how to use a library or a library catalog. Plenty of people can't tell the difference between an author and a subject. I admit that currently library catalog records tend to be cryptic to the uninitiated, but a majority of people never read more than the first 2-3 lines.

To play devil's advocate, one should write a similar autopsy on university teaching - since the burgeoning array of online courses relieves an institution of hiring teachers.

45. abrunvand - January 05, 2011 at 03:16 pm

The best book for librarians bemoaning the state of the profession in in 2011: "Super Sad True Love Story" by Gary Shteyngart.

A razor-sharp satire of a dystopian future sometime after the death of libraries and university teaching (tomorrow?), in which out-of-control social media, non-accountable citizen journalism and online retail lead to the ultimate demise of the American Empire. Not only is the hero a collector of "printed, bound media artifacts" (which turns out to be a key plot point), but librarians will also glory in the unexpected literary twist at the end. Who says books are no longer relevant? (Rated R, mature audiences only)

46. i_am_nomad - January 05, 2011 at 04:18 pm

Let's ease up a little on Mr. Sullivan. After all, for this transgreesion he will never be nominated as an ACRL Mover-and-Shaker!

Seriously though, a few points:

1. Does ANYBODY remember when Google developed an all-librarian focus group to help develop their search engine? And what was the final result of all that assiduous courtship? Google refined their processes, and abruptly dropped librarians from their agenda around 2000-2001. Thanks, suckers!

2. Does ANYBODY remember when Gale-Cengage issued a marketing campagin for their new acquisition of Questia? Although the campaign was canceled and the materials destroyed, it featured a bespectaled grey-haired female librarian (with a bun, of course), with a tag-line that said (in paraphrase): "You don't need the library to do research anymore." Even the database are smelling blood in the water. Sullivan's #5 is already in the works. It's called DISINTERMEDIATION people!

3. Does ANYBODY remember when Elsevier was caught publishing a faux-research journal that was nothing more than a shill for the drug Vioxx? Until it was discovered by a medical librarian to be a 100% fabrication, the journal's articles were cited like any other. Can you imagine what the typical freshman would have done if s/he disovered this in MEDLINE? They would have cited it, submitted the hastily composed bibliography to their equally ignorant English comp. teacher who would have approved it like any other bibliographic entry. It's a phenomen called "satisficing", first described by Herbet Simon in 1965. You don't need librarians to find excellent information if 99.9999% of everyone else is satisfied with crap-information.

In sum: Librarians and libraries may not survive in their present form. In fact, in 50 years they may become totally unrecognizable. But, like a recent CHE essay by Denis Donoghue said, the humanities may very die inside the walls of the Academy, only to have another life outside of it.

Hilarius Bookbinder

47. cocomaan - January 05, 2011 at 04:19 pm

"3. Information literacy was fully integrated into the curriculum. "

Now THAT is funny! At this moment, a social studies class in a primary school was planned into biting the dust.

I am amused by anyone who thinks that universities will somehow step up to the plate in the absence of any kind of critical thinking for the first 12 years of children's education.

No, we're getting less information literacy than we ever have these days.

48. i_am_nomad - January 05, 2011 at 05:36 pm

Gah! I meant "even the database VENDORS are smelling blood in the water".

49. oneperspective - January 06, 2011 at 09:17 am

Mr Sullivan seesm unaware that computerised aid to publication have resulted in an explosion of print, over 500,000 new titles a year in English alone. Most of these are not (yet) offered digitally and many have not and will never be scanned.The era of the paper book far from being over. As to the Shakespeare quote which he presents as a kind of authenticating emblem,"Insensible of mortality, and desperately mortal"--this is also a testimony to resilency and continuance.But I doubt he gets that- not enough time spent in libraries?

50. smartypants1 - January 06, 2011 at 09:30 am

Yeah, yeah. And if life followed what wes predicted when I was a kid I'd be living on a moon base and flying around on my hovering skateboard. I don't think Mr. Sullivan understands what he's claiming.

51. oneperspective - January 06, 2011 at 11:30 am

let me say, too, per my comments above (complete with typos and misspellings)that I doappreciate that Mr Sullivan is, 'actually', trying to save the baby he is tossing out- so to speak. A call to something arms, reforms, doing better.Only as many people have pointed out, he is perhaps simply wrong in some of his predictions.

52. hulibrary - January 06, 2011 at 11:45 am

Gee! I can't support this report. I'll still be at the Reference Desk, although 115 years old, having served 65 years as a Hampton University Reference Librarian, and still receiving the glorious salary of $50,000 per year.
Frank Edgcombe, Reference Librarian, Hampton University

53. oumls97 - January 06, 2011 at 03:42 pm

Thanks to Sullivan for the courageous call. It is also a good wake-up call. I am a librarian and I cautiously agree with you on almost all points.

54. petesuder - January 06, 2011 at 05:04 pm

I feel that this is a good article. I worked closely with a group of students who were to write a term paper. I checked their preliminary bibliographies and encouraged them to use library resources. Most of them attempted to do so, but found information easier on the Internet and many just ignored my advice.

And did it make any difference in the quality of their papers? I don't think so. I did encourage them to use government web sites and some did that also.

We all consider our resources to be more credible and reliable than Internet sources, but perhaps we need to rethink that.

Anyway, the author is being facetious but he brings up many good points.

55. salchaktoka - January 06, 2011 at 08:10 pm

Sullivan is basically right; libraries, and not just academic ones, will be dead by 2050. Ever few professors and students find them necessary, and librarians themselves are doing their best to trash everything good about their profession. And nobody wants to have to afford libraries.

But my response is still a big ho-hum: In 2050, there won't be colleges and universities either. A couple more economic collapses and continued environmental deterioration will see to that.

56. corn_y - January 06, 2011 at 09:42 pm

Librarians are interfaces to a library collection. Historically that collection was local and had boundaries, (whether those were physical walls or specific databases). Books "will" be all digital eventually. Most information "will" start and stay in digital form throughout its life. And as this happens, collections of information will become more and more distributed, shared and overlapped. At that point the idea of the local, closed collection of information (a library) will be old-fashioned. The role of "librarians" will also become obsolete. We will still need filters, gatekeepers, organizers, and teachers to help us interface with information but it won't make sense to call these things "librarians" anymore. Archivists, curators, teachers, editors, search engines, directories, researchers, but not "librarians". Librarians need to hurry and either redefine themselves or redefine "library".

I can't see how the current identity-crisis could possibly be the librarian's fault.

57. salchaktoka - January 07, 2011 at 09:56 am

corn-y: Somehow I'm just not in the mood to take the advice of anyone who thinks that quotation marks can be used to emphasize terms.

But then, this is the Chronicle, which promotes the illiteracy of such forumlations as "budget of $3.6-million" (i.e., with the hyphen).

58. cjmillerjr - January 07, 2011 at 10:31 am

Satire, people, satire... Please, faculty teaching information literacy?? And you think he was being serious?

59. salchaktoka - January 07, 2011 at 10:39 am

cjmillerjr: Quite possibly he was being dead serious. Most faculty already think they know more about how to use library tools than librarians do.

What is best, and what works best, do not matter. What matters is cutting expenses and stroking egos.

60. wigginslibraries - January 07, 2011 at 03:15 pm

Although I can not completely disagree with this article, I do believe it makes some very biased and twisted statements and completely overlooks the evolution of the library and its services that is currently taking place and that will continue in the future. Librarians are neither sitting back and watching the destruction happen nor are they contributing to their own demise.

Furthermore, the article also does not present any useful or helpful suggestions on what changes need to take place in order to change this negative outcome.

Librarians and future librarians do not fear. This isn't anything new or something we haven't already heard. I believe we can shape our own future. We are a culture of adaptation and evolution. We've adapted/evolved to meet the needs of our patrons before and we can surely do it again.

61. spindry - January 10, 2011 at 05:30 pm

Here's a different vision. In 2050 the buildings that housed libraries have been purged of their books and are filled with undescribed and often obsolete paper and digital archives of the 1995-2020 period. Online researchers are required to purchase access to the surviving digitized books and e-journals provided by for-profit vendors, only to find many are illegible and only have the table of contents and/or introductory pages available. Those desperate enough to approach the archival collections seek the assistance of the aged special collections librarian or archivist who knows how to load obsolete media and backup tapes to barely functioning holographic display devices, seeking some remnant source that has not been corrupted. Other surviving digital materials lack the drivers and operating systems that enable opening the files. Encrypted materials cannot be opened because their keys have been lost, most have already been deleted because no one knew what was in them. Surviving websites, blogs and tweets from the Wayback Machine are rife with broken links and corrupted texts. A vast body of surviving paper, photo and film materials is available but are so unorganized as to make discovery impossible. That stuff is kept in a few university warehouses located in moderate climes where climate control is less expensive. The knowledge of the 1995-2020 period is mostly lost, and the surviving knowledge is only available to those who pay for access, although no one can be sure if the "history" has been manipulated. Most knowledge from this period is acquired via social networks and cannot be verified, although few seek this information in their work or studies since there's too much conflicting information to make sense of it. Organized knowledge from the 2020-2050 period is available through pay for download, where you pay for the library you can afford and download all of it to your personal reading device. No one has access to everything and the result of your research depends upon the quality of the library you can afford. Medical libraries are by far the most expensive, followed by business libraries and political newsbanks. The quality of your library purchase becomes the new college degree since universities became obsolete in 2030 and the downloaded academic libraries include the instructional syllabi and materials once associated with formal classes. Self-directed study is the norm and employment credentials are established solely through online video interviews with candidates who never come to an "office" to work. Access to all of this is intermittant given frequent brown outs and power shortages.

I'll probably be deceased by 2050, but given that I started in the field on an IBM XT it will be fun to see what we're working with in 2025 when I hopefully can retire!

62. leeleblanc - January 11, 2011 at 12:02 pm


When so many people are telling you you're wrong without even thinking, (critically as I so often hear librarians cry), about how they are wrong, you might be onto some massive change most people are unwilling to face.

Especially when no real thoughtful arguments are made against the points in this post -only the most common, reactive arguments are made. If you want to counter an argument, please argue from what currently is reality, not what it was.

The idea is to take the best of what we do and do it better. What we routinely thought we did, others are doing better, faster, cheaper and with more socially connected meaning. It's not about books or information or anything library-like. What we need to do is something entirely different. Find that. Do it better. All of it's going to be different for different libraries.

It's not a matter of arguing to keep the same or just saying something different to stand out. It's a matter of: what is next. What's next is different.

63. 11174426 - January 11, 2011 at 03:42 pm

While many of the points in this autopsy can be argued and disputed, the danger in this satire is that funders and administrators may not read it as such.

64. larryc - January 12, 2011 at 05:09 pm

The horseless carriage will never catch on!

65. i_am_nomad - January 13, 2011 at 09:51 am

Spindry: Great comments. In fact, you should write the next article for CHE. (And I'm not being facetious!) Librarians are surrendering their roles as keepers of the social transcript, and the end result may be a nation, indeed a world, that suffers from actue Alzheimer's. But, you won't hear such ideas bandied about at ALA this year...everybody's getting on board with "pay as you go" access to journals instead of building their own collections. One day we may be reduced to accessing the most important cultural documents using a website like that of The Libery Fund...documents which will of course be edited to reflect an entrenched political discourse.

66. i_am_nomad - January 13, 2011 at 10:03 am

Apropos of Mr. Sullivan's point #1, Dogbert has a few sage words of consulting advice:


Blah blah Web 2.0
Blah blah social media
Blah blah ambient findability
Blah blah patron driven acquisition

67. reuscher - January 13, 2011 at 04:24 pm

Comment number 61 is spot on. That seems to be the more likely version of the future we face.

68. susan38 - January 13, 2011 at 04:29 pm

I realize this is supposed to be a warning of where libraries are headed in another 40 years if we're not careful. But I don't find it particularly helpful. Are we supposed to NOT digitize collections? Or NOT work with IT staff? Or NOT improve database search functionality? I think this is yet another report in which the demise of the library has been greatly exaggerated. Libraries are more than just a sum of their parts -- more than just the computers and books that fill their walls. They're places where overwhelmed Freshmen can go to concentrate, or the baffled exchange student can find some friendly staff for guidance, or the harried professor can sink herself into some in-depth research. They are also one of the few places that combat economic disparity on campus. No matter what cool gadgets come out in the future, there will always be students who can't afford them and rely on the library for everything from textbooks on reserve to tax forms to printing. Technology trends change so quickly, the fears expressed in this article will look positively quaint by 2050. Who knows if Google and Wikipedia will even exist anymore by then. But libraries and librarians will still exist, performing their mission of providing equitable access to information -- in whatever form that information may take.

69. bonnieubarnes - January 14, 2011 at 11:33 am

Next article up should be the death of the university and higher education in general--I've seen articles that say schools will no longer be necessary in the future, because we can learn all we need without teachers.

70. cvidor - January 14, 2011 at 12:22 pm

"Economics trumped quality."  

No, it didn't.  As information services including instruction became more accessible from open sources such as iPod University and MIT's Open Courseware universities had to find a way to personalize and distinguish their in-person services to students.
Students had to be given a reason to show up in person on campus rather than to earn their credits from cheaper online programs.

Universities turned to the information professionals who understood BOTH information systems (traditional and emerging, print and digital) AND people, who were brilliant at the human dimension of learning and knowledge acquisition.  It was the librarians who helped administrators analyze and understand their diverse and increasingly non-traditional and global constituency, who led the way in organizing, marketing, displaying, and guiding the use of the ever-exploding myriad of information sources and formats and doing all this in a way that best served the specific needs of the university's faculty and students.  

It was the librarians who came to the aid of subject departments who were mired in arguments about which of the proprietary databases to purchase with those shrinking budgets (proprietary databases, unlike other information sources, did not lower their prices and suddenly become free---go figure, DUH!) and helped them develop sensible priorities based on student needs.  

It was the librarians who guided the re-configuration of data access centers into spaces that offered suitable workspaces in a variety of arrangements to suit different purposes and different kinds of human interactions and learning styles.  Who made the data-centers into inviting, inspiring places that facilitated both collaboration and individual reflection.  

It was the librarians who walked around these spaces where students studied and created knowledge products, answering questions, encouraging, and guiding them through by not only giving answers but by asking perceptive questions that helped students to consider different perspectives and options as they worked.

It was the librarians who networked with faculty members as well as students and alumni to develop cultural programming as an integral part of knowledge sharing and knowledge creation on campus.  

They made knowledge use and creation a central part of re-defining and emphasizing the universities' unique missions and identities. They led the creation of transformed learning environments that acknowledged and honored human individuality.

In fact, it was not the librarians who ended up working in the information technology departments, but rather the very best and most intelligent of the information technologists who were lucky enough to get jobs working under librarians' direction.  Technology itself, you see, had become so easy to manage that you didn't need whole departments of techies any more---you needed people who understood how to think about using, understanding, and creating knowledge--librarians.

Constance Vidor
Director of Library Services
Friends Seminary
New York, New York

71. mvickers - January 20, 2011 at 09:08 am

The real irony here may be that the most damaging thing a librarian might now do is to write a premature quasi-ironic autopsy report about own profession or institution. Assessment data of existing libraries (especially libraries that provide integrative technology support) simply do not support Mr. Sullivan's cautionary predictions. This comment box doesn't have space to do a decent rebuttal to all 6 points, so let me focus on #3: integrating information literacy with the curriculum. We adopted this goal for our Quality Enhancment Plan for our 10-year reaccreditation plan under the Southern Association (SACS). It was approved, but the SACS accreditors warned us that we might need to INCREASE library staff (especially in Reference)to cope with increased student and faculty demand. That prediction (based on prior assessments at other institutions) proved emphatically correct. Library use is up, database searches are up, reference queries are up, technology use is up, faculty requests for library collaboration are up, and yes, even print book circulation is up. And yes, we have added to our reference staffing. Mr. Sullivan's points are amusing and thought-provoking, but I could similarly go through his other 5 points and show data that simply demonstrate an alternate future reality. Of the comments above, I think Constance Vidor (#70)is closest to a correct prediction for the library of 2050.

Donald Beagle
Director of library Services
Belmont Abbey College

72. l_peterman - January 24, 2011 at 08:03 am

I work in a community college library and have witnessed first hand most of the things that Mr. Sullivan describes. I agree with Mr. Sullivans points and I think the ones who do not are in denial.

73. i_am_nomad - January 31, 2011 at 04:46 pm

l_peterman: Or, maybe like Mr. Beagle and Ms. Vidor, they are administrators for libraries at private colleges that charge $20,000-plus a year in tuition. You cannot claim to have a solid grasp of the reality at most institutions of higher ed. if you are an administrator at a boutique-level university. Students that attend Belmont Abbey College are not from the middle of the bell-curve, and neither are seminary students. Perhaps Ms. Vidor and Mr. Beagle would like to do a turn at the reference desk of the typical community college where students function at a fifth-grade literacy level.

74. mvickers - February 01, 2011 at 07:59 pm

Oh, I'm very much afraid that my 20 years of experience in institutions prior to Belmont Abbey College, including years of reference work in public library branches serving disadvantaged urban communities that would make the typical community college LRC look like a spa by comparison (try driving down Bragg Blvd in Fayetteville NC; check out the demographics & adult illiteracy rate of Robeson Co., NC), do indeed give me solid grasp of hard realities beyond my campus. Two of my college reference staff members have gone on to run reference services at community college LRC's, and both report results from information literacy projects very similar to what my previous posting described.

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