User Tools

Site Tools


The Future of Libraries is Librarians?

date: March 1, 2012

T. Scott Plutchak 1) has written a very nice article addressing the critique that libraries (specifically academic libraries) are on the decline. Of particular interest for me, given our ALISE presentation this January (with Matthew Altman) is the confusion about agency in our field — specifically, the concern about the use of 'libraries' as if libraries are agents, which entail they can act. Matt and I address this issue in relation to our field's stated ethics. 2) We pick on the Library Bill of Rights for its wording–ex: “Libraries should provide …”, “Libraries should challenge …”, and so forth, and argue that more accurate (theoretically and not just grammatically) ethical propositions should be re-formed. That is, the term “librarians” should be used — ex: “Librarians should provide …”, etc.

Plutchak says what he learned as editor of the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association (BMLA) was that

throughout this varied catalog of articles [articles submitted to the journal and that he was reading as the editor], I noted a consistent thread. Whatever it was that was being done, it was the library that was reported as the agent. It was “The Library” that had initiated this new program or was engaged in this particular interesting project. The more that I noticed this, the more it began to trouble me. “Libraries,” I thought, “are just buildings, or gatherings of objects, or an abstract diagram on an organization chart. Libraries don't do anything—people do.”

Interestingly, in an early view article from the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (JASIST), Vincent Larivière, Cassidy Sugimoto, and Blaise Cronin use bibliometric measures to chronicle the first hundred years of library and information science. There's a good tie in between their article and Plutchak's (and to some other work that the author from the JASIST article, Cassidy Sugimoto, has done with others; see Finlay, C.S., Sugimoto, C.R., Li, D., and Russell, T.G, 2012). Under the section “Stable and Declining Words,” Larivière, Sugimoto, and Cronin find that the truncated term, librar*, as well as the term, librarian, have both declined (proportionally) over the time period as apparent subject and research topics in library and information science literature. For the latter term, it's a fairly striking decline. They write that

the term librar* was found in nearly 70% of all titles in the early part of the century but the corresponding figure today is 16%, the most dramatic decline of all (although this still represents a large proportion of the overall literature). However, this is not necessarily an indication that the absolute amount of library literature has declined, but rather that the proportion of such literature has declined as information science journals were founded (Donohue & Karioth, 1966). Librarian has also decreased, from 7% in the first part of the century to less than 1% today. The most precipitous decline happened between 1960 and 1980, when many information-related terms entered the literature (early view edition, p. 11).

Of course, this is a bird's eye historical view, but it's certainly worth further investigation – and action. My hope is that Plutchak's argument can gain some momentum and reverse the tide a bit in terms of research focusing on librarians. His is a very nice article about the potential great age of librarians versus the previous great age of libraries (there's certainly an interesting corrollary in the literature between the shift in focus from libraries to users).

Finlay, C.S., Sugimoto, C.R., Li, D., and Russell, T.G. (2012). LIS dissertation titles and abstracts (1930-2009): Where have all the librar* gone? The Library Quarterly, 82(1), 29-46.

Larivière, V., Sugimoto, C.R., and Cronin, B. (2012). A bibliometric chronicling of library and information science's first hundred years. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 63(5). doi:

Plutchak, T. Scott. (2012). Breaking the barrier of time and space: The dawning of the great age of librarians. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 100(1), 10-19. Available here:

I happened to come across Plutchak's paper from a Scholarly Kitchen blog post by Kent Anderson, located at
I defend my dissertation proposal next week, which happens to to address the marginalization of academic libraries. After that, Matt and I will finish and submit the paper we presented at ALISE.
blog/the-future-of-libraries-is-librarians.txt · Last modified: 2017/03/07 16:51 by seanburns