Librarians Have Value, Even if Libraries Have Less

The value of the library (usually the physical place) and the librarian are often conflated when, in fact, they are hugely different. The intermediation of information services does not always require a physical space for the customer to visit and the information professional can provide a wide variety of services without even interacting directly with the customer. Charles Christian was interviewed by Charon, QC, on a podcast earlier this month and Harvard Law Library is hiring some unusual new positions. Both inspired me to think about librarian value.

The interview with Christian is at Charon QC’s Web site.  Start at 7:10 into the 34 minute podcast for the part about law firm libraries in the UK, discussions of online databases, etc.  Charles Christian is the editor of The Legal Technology Insider and the Orange Rag blog.  The upshot of the conversation, which includes merger talks between the Middle and Inner Temple libraries (BIALL blog, Charon QC), was that libraries may not be valued for their content so much as for the research space, wireless internet, ambience they provide.  Christian’s comments about print and electronic databases, and whether lawyers do much research in any event, are interesting.  But both participants thought that the expertise of the librarian was important for cost-effective law firm legal research.  And, more probably, are vital for effective competitive intelligence and business research.

Then I saw Harvard Law Library’s director’s blog, discussing the hiring of a statistics-oriented researcher to support growing need for empirical data gathering and analysis by Harvard’s researchers (fellowship posting, blog).  As you can read in John Palfrey’s blog posting, they are hiring an empiricist to support statistical research.  It’s an interesting twist on hiring non-librarians to support customer research needs.  I would expect that the number of library-degree-holding-statisticians is pretty small.  But it’s a great way for a library to look at the services it needs to deliver to stay relevant (not that Harvard probably needs to worry about relevancy as much as others) and finding the right people to support those services.

At the end of the day, I would expect to see more professionals in special libraries as

  • the research demands climb up the value chain, and reference continues to become more complex and customers are able to do the first level research themselves, expertly or otherwise;
  • high-maintenance print subscriptions, particularly looseleaf texts, are eliminated or their updating is reduced, reducing the number of library technicians required for traditional library work;
  • foot traffic that results in delivery of traditional services (books off shelves, printing, photocopying) decline, and fewer paraprofessional staff are needed to staff these front-line services.

If the staffing balance shifts towards more librarians and other professionals, and as paraprofessionals find their library work changing to support service delivery in different ways, the blurring of value may lessen because there will be fewer things to distract from the analysis.  As nascent bibliometric studies find ways to measure some of the value information professionals provide, we should get additional support for where our value lies and what it is worth.  We can increase this value by making sure our expertise is utilized most effectively to serve our customers.