The Future of the Librarian: Information Architecture and Literacy

I’ve often wondered, what does the post-library era look like? Let’s face it, though there will be a long tail, the era of the bound wood pulp is coming to an end (Amazon certainly thinks so). Without books, what do librarians do?

I’ve long-thought that the post-library librarian is really an Information Architect. To date, we equate “library” with “book,” but that’s been a short-sighted paradigm for years. A librarian organizes information, it’s just happened to be in book form all these years.

A couple weeks ago, Seth Godin filed a post I just got around to reading: The Future of the Library. I was gratified to find that he agrees with me.

The librarian isn’t a clerk who happens to work at a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user.

The future of the library is going to be providing and promoting information skills, not pure reading. Future generations are so bombarded with information that they need to be taught skills like how to define their task, how to find information, how to evaluate the source of that information, and how to synthesize a smaller piece information into a larger problem set (see “The Big 6” for an attempt at codifying this into a curriculum).

To this, Godin says:

The library is no longer a warehouse for dead books. Just in time for the information economy, the library ought to be the local nerve center for information. […] We all love the vision of the underprivileged kid bootstrapping himself out of poverty with books, but now (most of the time), the insight and leverage is going to come from being fast and smart with online resources, not from hiding in the stacks.

I’m tempted to make a rhetorical flourish here and say that “look – nothing has really changed.” However, I think it has changed. Specifically, there have been two fundamental shifts in the organization and delivery of information which will change things forever.

First, the book has been broken apart, and this has made information much more granular. You can buy individual chapters of books now, and the concepts of things like the section, chapter, and even page is breaking down (the Kindle doesn’t refer to pages – it refers to “locations” – see “eBooks and the Vanishing Concept of the Page” from a couple years ago).

Information isn’t corralled into one spot and momentously bound into dead trees anymore – rather, we’re swimming in it, getting pelted by a never-ending hailstorm of it. If you didn’t like to learn in the past, you could choose to not open a book. But these days, you can’t get from the avalanche. Our attention span isn’t absorbed by one large thing, rather it’s dying a death of a thousand cuts.

Second, just about anyone can get information out to the world now. Previously, getting a book published took some doing. Getting it into the public library took even more work. There was a natural vetting process at work.

However, nowadays, the diatribe on human rights you just read online the could have been written by Nelson Mandela…or your crazy neighbor down the street. No longer can we think, “Well, this guy got a book published, so he must have some credibility…” We need to know how to critically evaluate sources of information and use than in determining the value of the information. (How many college students even know what “peer reviewed” means?)

And this, I think, is where the future of the librarian lies: the art of information architecture and literacy. Given all the outlets for information now, how do we organize it so it can be found, and how do we teach people how to manage it and use it to solve problems?

The librarians of the future will have to do exactly this.

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