“We must look with cold and hard-headed rationality at our current practices and ask ourselves not what value they offer, but rather what value our patrons believe they offer. If what we offer our patrons is not perceived as valuable by them, then we have two choices: change their minds, or redirect our resources. The former is virtually impossible; the latter is enormously painful. But the latter is possible, and if we do not undertake such a redirection ourselves, it will almost certainly be undertaken for us.”

The above quotation comes from an editorial in the July 2011 issue of The Journal of Academic Librarianship. In it, Rick Anderson, Associate Director for Scholarly Resources and Collections at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library, discusses the current plight of academic research libraries: that patrons’ perceptions of libraries, particularly their value and use, have moved beyond our organizational design and there is little we can do about it.

If you enjoy reading “future of libraries” talk with overtones of the apocalypse (see also Taiga), then Anderson’s article offers tasty hors d’oeuvres. He answers the question “Can the research library go out of business?” with a definitive “Yes” and goes on to describe what that might look like.

I recommend reading the article in full, but I want to touch upon one aspect. We’ve suspected for some time that reference transactions were declining (over 60% per FTE since 1995 according to one study Anderson cites), partly because more information is easily found online but also because students’ perceptions of their information searching skills are strengthening. They may indeed still need librarians in certain situations, but they don’t think they do.

Anderson doesn’t believe we can change this perception. I tend to agree. Rather, I think we should be working even harder to integrate our resources seamlessly into our students’ daily lives in ways that encourage [self-initiated] discovery: embedding resources in course pages, using search discovery layers, making ourselves available at the students’ point of need in both physical and virtual spaces (but mostly virtual), and building programs and projects that encourage complex human-information interactions. We can be leaders, but the kind of leaders that stay out of the way.

It isn’t important that students know librarians are behind it. Most probably don’t care if it’s us or our IT department or Google. They only care that it works and that it helps them get things done. Thoughts?



Anderson, R. (2011). The crisis in research librarianship. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 37(4), 289-290.

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