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Down the Organization: Disorganized Librarianship

Submitted by Tom Peters on December 12, 2007 - 7:19am

This morning, while Max my dog and I were out for an early morning stroll, a truly cockamamie idea dawned on me.

feeding frenzyIt began as I was contemplating the recent feeding frenzy involving bloggers, reporters, and columnists over the commercial release of the Kindle ebook reader from Amazon.  A quick search in Technorati for the keywords "Amazon Kindle" pulled back over 3700 posts.  It's amazing that thousands of bloggers have commented on this device.   

This is fantastic. Many new technology devices and developments receive similar coverage, debate, and feedback. Covering the tech scene has become a sizable group effort.  Long live the wisdom of crowds. 

Collectively we do a great job of hashing and mulling over specific technological developments, but what about general technology trends and outcomes? Long-term patterns are a little more difficult to spot, write about with confidence, and tag.

SputnikAs Max and I turned the corner, I began wondering how technology has affected librarianship in the last 50 years -- since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, let's say, to place a memorable event at the beginning of the era we're considering. I wanted to think about all technological developments, not just computer and communication technologies. While knowledge developments certainly affect the growth and develop of a profession, technological developments seem to have a significant impact on the practice of professions -- education, law, medicine, librarianship, etc.

Because librarianship is one of many professions, I thought perhaps I should compare and contrast how technology has transformed librarianship against how technology has changed another profession. After considering education and law for a moment, I decided to use medicine as a comparision profession.

The practice of medicine, at least here in the United States, seems to have evolved in the last 50 years into clinics, hospitals, and other fairly large and complex organizations. The era of the solitary practicing physician carrying a black bag seems to be long gone, except in sparsely populated areas where the basic choice is between having a sole practitioner who covers a large geographic area, or no practitioner. The importance of organizations (clinics, hospitals) to the practice of medicine (healthcare) in the U.S. seems to have risen substantially in the past 50 years.

Technological advances in healthcare diagnoses and treatments seem to have fueled this consolidation of the practice and delivery of health and medical services into larger and more complex organizations. The sophistication and cost of technologies supporting the practice of medicine have increased the need for and importance of healthcare organizations. They haven't been the only contributing cause, however. The cost of malpractice insurance, the trend toward specialization, and overall office expenses come to mind as other contributing factors.

When, in contrast, we consider how the technological advances in library and information systems and services have affected the practice of librarianship in the last 50 years, a cockamamie idea pops up:

Mamie, not cockamamieMany library and information technological developments seem to have empowered individuals (librarians and end-users alike) to create and customize their own information systems. The general technological trends of the past 50 years seem to have undermined a bit the power and value of libraries as highly structured organizations in pursuit of the practice and delivery of information and information services. If general tech trends "upped the organization" in the medical professions, they seem to have "downed the organization" in the library and information professions. Perhaps the future of librarianship will involve the ascendancy of "disorganized librarianship" as a practice -- librarianship where individuals (pros and para-pros) will be major players in the overall practice of librarianship, outside and beyond the friendly confines of libraries as organizations.

I told you it was a harebrained idea. Even Max began looking at me quizzically. Before you fire back a flaming rebuttal, please consider:

  • I freely admit that this is a wild idea. I'm not sure my impromptu analysis, done with a very broad brush, is even close to the truth of the past 50 years, let alone the future. There are enough "yea buts" here to compose a digital dissertation.
  • I'm not saying that libraries as organizations will disappear completely. I'm only suggesting that the "technological conditions of existence" (as a Marxist might say) seem to be pointing toward the decline of power and influence by libraries as organizations as we have known them.
  • Technological developments are just one factor to consider when trying to make sense of the past and present in order to speak intelligently about the future. Even if you agree with me that, in the past 50 years, in many ways the pertinent technological developments have tended to empower individuals, this does not necessarily mean that legions of go-it-alone library professionals will suddenly crop up, offering to provide library-like services.
  • Even if "disorganized librarianship" gains some acceptance, we should not forget that these talented individuals will be standing on the shoulders of giants. Libraries as complex organizations have made tremendous contributions to the practice of librarianship, and the long tail of their influence will be long indeed.
  • Not all libraries of the past 50 years have been complex organizations. (No chortling now, dear reader!) Many existing libraries already are in fact one-person libraries. In relatively densely populated areas where libraries as complex organizations could be sustained, however, they have indeed developed and been sustained.   
  • I decided to share this wild and crazy idea, rather than quietly forget it, only because it's so outlandish that there may be some value in discussing it.

If dis-organized librarians begin to provide information services on a relatively large scale, what types of communities will they serve? Probably primarily online and virtual communities, not geographically defined communities. Rather than open a storefront on main street or the local mall, these solo librarians will find online and virtual world communities, study their information needs and preferences, and begin offering information services.


Comments (3)

Hi, Greg. Sorry I stole your

Hi, Greg. Sorry I stole your thunder for next July's Casual Conversation in OPAL (www.opal-online.org). I'm warming up to this idea that the practice of librarianship may shift--perhaps only slightly--from libraries as organizations to librarians as solo providers. There are many reasons why this would not work--historical inertia being one--but in other ways the conditions seem to be ripe for it.

Tom, I was listening to your

Tom, I was listening to your conversation with Meredith Farkas and thinking about our upcoming conversation next summer. You've pretty much anticipated my answer to the 'future of librarianship' question with this post.

Tom, I\'m so happy someone

Tom, I\'m so happy someone is taking the time to try and re-imagine the public services part of librarianship. The general run of conversation about the future of libraries, particularly academic ones, seems to be about our roles as curators and preservers of knowledge. I think that will be important also, but I think there will be plenty of scope for our other traditional role as guides and pathfinders. It\'s not wild and crazy--you\'re saying reference librarians have a future.