The Future Role of Librarians?
as Marilyn Gell Mason, director of the Cleveland Public Library, expresses it. A century ago, in another time of profound economic and industrial transformation, librarians collected and organized the products of mass publishing spawned by industrialized economies and brought these publications to a newly educated populace and expanding scholarly community. At the end of the twentieth century, librarians could, the argument went, act similarly in a new universe of global, evanescent, unmonitored digital information. Although the situation is fluid and not without problems, libraries are working at fulfilling this prophecy. "Disintermediation"— that is, the elimination of a helper or intermediary between information source and user— has no doubt occurred as people learned to find what they wanted by themselves (as some always did), but it has not occurred to the point of spelling the end of library service, as alternative scenarios projected. In fact, there is a growing demand for librarians to manage information systems, and in nontraditional (read nonlibrary) as well as traditional settings.
This idea of Disintermediation comes out of the work of John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid at Xerox PARC and UC-Berkeley and is discussed in detail in The Social Life of Information. The Special Libraries Association did an interview with John Seely Brown and asked several questions specific to this idea of Disintermediation and the new role of the librarian.
Here is an excerpt from that interview:
IO: You've touched on this point already, but I was struck by a particular phrase and I'd like you to comment on it. You wrote, "it is becoming increasingly clear that libraries are less collections than useful selections that gain their usefulness as much by what they exclude as what they hold." I read that and I thought it sounded very much like the definition of a special library. What do you think?
JSB: I think as we move forward, the role of the librarian is going to have to be re-thought, and I think it can be re-thought in a way that the librarian--special collection or otherwise—takes on a more central role as a "knowledge intermediary," by working to create knowledge in the right form, at the right time, for the right purpose, and by eliminating what is not critical. A knowledge intermediary is also the one who has integrated enough fragments of knowledge into something that provides the root for making the selections, and knowing how to render that selection in its most meaningful way.
As PhD students in this field, how do the above statements fit with your vision of the future practice of librarians?