30 ways librarianship has changed in 30 years

In December of 1986, I started a small staffing firm for legal libraries, and that means we just had our 30 year anniversary. That same year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) initiated NSFNET, the network that would help form the US backbone for the global communication system we now know as the internet.

Thanks primarily to the internet and advances in digital technology, librarianship has changed a great deal in the last 30 years. How big of a deal? After conducting an informal survey within the company, we came up with 30 ways libraries and librarians have changed.

Many of the items might seem provocative, particularly for librarians who believe strongly in the status and value of the library as an institution. While it’s true that some settings, like law firm libraries, have pretty much crossed over into the digital realm, I hope and believe the traditional library will continue to be an important part of our society.  I still love browsing the stacks and the smell of books!

Enjoy perusing our list which we compiled by crowdsourcing our own team of 300+ information professionals.  The list is in no particular order. And I welcome your comments on any of them, as well as any additions (or subtractions) you would make. Please share them with me here and our webmaster will ensure I get them.

30 library and librarian changes in 30 years

  1. The shift from paper to growing use of digitization and multimedia formats to materials “born” digital and residing on remote servers, available online from any internet-connected location.
  2. The revising, downsizing and outright elimination of library space. Whether it’s a public library, academic library or special library, all settings are looking at ways to repurpose physical space. Meanwhile, the library space that does remain is increasingly being updated for more collaborative, multi-purpose use.
  3. Fundamental shift in content discovery and access, from the traditional library’s rigid hierarchical structure to the internet’s flexible, dynamic structure that permits jumping from one topic to another, related or not.
  4. The challenges of maintaining a hybrid library, combining physical collections that remain viable with growing demand for digital materials and digital services.
  5. Change in focus from ownership and stewardship of a well-defined collection to one of accessibility to more dynamic collections via networking.
  6. Need to change the library’s mission when it’s no longer primarily to create and manage collections for a specific audience or local community.
  7. Greater emphasis on user satisfaction, with more frequent use of surveys and assessments.
  8. Librarians have had to become salespeople, learning how to be self-advocates and how to leverage marketing principles, going beyond traditional outreach initiatives and adopting new marketing tools like social media.
  9. Collaboration and negotiations with a wider range and different set of vendors, including more technology functions like web programmers.
  10. Required core competencies now include digital skills, with the increasing need for librarians to acquire new technical skills to do their jobs and deliver services more effectively.
  11. Changing work responsibilities, with more librarians doing online reference, digital document delivery and instruction on how to use technology.
  12. Shift from “just in case” to “just in time” availability and delivery of content and information.
  13. The push to run libraries more like businesses. Many librarians are not crazy about this change, believing that libraries serve a more elevated purpose, yet most MLS/MLIS programs are hammering away at the need for metrics and other ways to demonstrate value. And sponsoring organizations – whether it’s a law firm, school, local government or other sponsor – now expect librarians to show how their efforts add value and contribute to desired outcomes.
  14. Operating budgets now include automation and electronic resources, with the associated costs that come with it for training, staffing and equipment.
  15. Challenge of assessing and managing software and hardware for library services, with increasing rates of change and faster obsolescence.
  16. Growing percentage of materials budget going to electronic resource licensing.
  17. Elimination or reduction of clerical library duties like re-shelving and check-in.
  18. The assessment and moving of physical collections to offsite storage to solve space problems or reallocate space to other uses.
  19. Fewer face-to-face interactions with clients and library users, replaced by email, online chat, online ‘ask a librarian’ services, phone and videoconferencing.
  20. Increasing use of interlibrary loan (ILL) systems and blurring of lines between ILL and document delivery.
  21. Greater demand for desktop delivery of materials to internet-connected computers and other personal devices.
  22. Incessant pressure to drive down the costs associated with providing library services and the need to allocate resources as technologies, vendors, workflows and other needs change.
  23. Greater need for change management support in response to ongoing pressure to restructure and reorganize the library function.
  24. Staff increasingly overburdened with new responsibilities, having to do more with less as headcount is reduced or remains static.
  25. Blurring of open and closed times, with users preferring the convenience of getting information any hour of the day or night and more users outside of the library’s customary time-zone and geographic boundaries.
  26. New considerations for digital collection management like licensing issues, backup, redundancy, security and content migration.
  27. Need to develop new strategies and plans for the future to bolster support as consensus builds for library closures, especially in the public sector.
  28. Increasing challenges to any given library’s ability to exercise control over content and access to content.
  29. Librarians are now expected to be well-versed in emerging technologies – how to use them, how they affect outcomes, how they can be adapted, etc.

As for number 30, I have saved this for last, because it is a change that many of us who have been in the profession for a while have been resisting. That change is a growing aversion to, or at least the move away from, the words library and librarian:

  1. The push to rebrand and rename the profession, using terminology like Information Center and Information Professional.

The last thirty years were a time of unprecedented change in all areas of life, thanks to digital technology. While change is hard, it’s also inevitable.

As for the next thirty years, I’m looking to everyone entering the profession now to guide the future of librarianship.