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The risky librarian

Read time 8min 10sec

Once upon a time, when apple was a fruit and tweets were for birds, finding information was a bit of a chore. It involved physical buildings, rows of books, and often, a 'guardian' who would provide access to the world of knowledge.

It's safe to say things have changed somewhat. The insistent appeal for “silence please” has become a bleak reality, as physical libraries are abandoned for digital databases in the cloud.

With this migration of users comes a new set of challenges for information professionals. At the annual African Conference for Digital Scholarship and Curation, held at the CSIR last week, it became clear that the content guardians of old face a new ultimatum: adapt or become irrelevant.

In a presentation on the role of new technologies in digital research and innovation, Sabinet data manager Mariaan Smit noted that users no longer see the library as a gateway to information, and it's rarely the first place they go to find it.

In a highly interactive, networked world, users turn to search engines for their information needs, and feel limited by a single library's boundaries, she added.

To join the broader world of information and understand users' content needs, librarians have to realise that “the Web is the new platform,” said Smit.

Pavlinka Kovatcheva, sciences librarian at the University of Johannesburg, explained that technology is changing the traditional role of librarians, requiring them to use different tools to perform their usual tasks in a new way.

“To apply the new tools you need to learn new skills, you need to change your attitude and accept that if you don't adapt to the changing environment, you as a librarian could distance yourself from your users.”

It's all about bringing information to where people are.

iBala consortium

In an environment where knowledge is all about collaboration, librarians are finding value in sharing experiences, challenges, and resources.

One initiative, called iBala, was formed through collaboration between the CSIR, the University of Pretoria and Unisa, as a platform for encouraging librarians to merge mobile technologies into their daily work.

Established in May last year, iBala has expanded to include participants from various fields, and partnered with subject experts from the CSIR, Wits, and recently, Samsung.

iBala is Xhosa for 'playground', based on the idea that participants are still experimenting within new technology fields.

According to iBala, the role of the librarian has changed due to technology, search behaviour, and users needing 24/7 access to information resources outside those in the physical library.

“It's all about bringing information to where people are, versus them having to go somewhere to get information,” said one of the founders, Nomvuyelo Ngcangula.

“As librarians, we are trying to stay up to date and are always thinking of ways to accommodate our clients' changing behaviour. Technology is an enabler to change the way we deliver services and products.”

iBala says the community is facing a mindset change. “Some librarians find new technologies challenging, but are willing to learn and use them. Others cannot see the relevancy of these technologies to their current work tasks - especially using a personal device for professional means.

“However, it's clear from feedback and responses from workshops that librarians are recognising the challenge, and are willing to change mindsets and ways of working by being curious and willing to experiment,” notes the consortium.

Brave new world

On local shores, the information revolution has been taking place on the small screen, with most of Africa's Internet users accessing the Web via their phones. Mobile growth saw a rise from 1% to 31% between 2000 and 2008, and by the end of last year, mobile subscribers on the continent had surpassed the half-billion mark.

“Africa has one of the highest mobile penetration rates in the world and for us to remain relevant, we should make use of technology already in the hands of our clients,” says iBala.

It adds that success for libraries in the mobile age is dependant on the library user. “Distance students could be accommodated better than in the traditional ways services are rendered. Also, 24/7 access is mobile, not PC-based, so librarians are becoming mobile service providers, rather than building- or PC-based.”

To remain current and active participants in the building of new knowledge, librarians need to adapt their services and access to resources, notes Kovatcheva.

Apart from providing mobile access to library catalogues or Web sites, librarians can offer users services such as 'push' news from publishers, research news, databases alerts, and promote the access and usage of library databases on their mobile phones.

The face of the library changes from being 'in there' to being 'out there'

Pavlinka Kovatcheva, sciences librarian, University of Johannesburg

But she adds that libraries are still in early stages of providing mobile services and that further discussion and exploration is needed.

iBala's advice to information professionals is not to panic, and to focus on the user. “Although some technologies might be new and seem intimidating, we are providing services to clients, not to ourselves.

“Never be afraid. We are all learning together and you don't have to reinvent the wheel. Redesign, facelifts and collaboration are the key to success in the ever-changing environment of library services.”

The consortium likens it to previous advances, such as when the card catalogue went online. “We are entering a new and exciting change in library services. Being part of experimentation and decision-making in this environment is exciting.”

Kovatcheva says the academic community has been somewhat slow to respond to changes in the information environment. “However, the faculties are moving in that direction by adopting the use of Twitter and Facebook to communicate with students and potential students.”

She adds they've also started using videos, blogs, wikis and the virtual learning environment to share information and resources. “Some of the academics are implementing new technologies into the curriculum. The students I've spoken to are positive about the changes and make use of them in one way or another.”

It's still early days, and there's a need to investigate what works and what doesn't, notes Kovatcheva.

Pocket librarian

Beyond books

The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago provides a glimpse of what could be the future of academic study.
Opened to students on 16 May, the domed structure stores its 3.5 million books underground, in sealed bins in a five-storey-high chamber.
Users can search for books online, and if the book or journal isn't available in digital format, the automated retrieval system fetches the book from below, delivering it to the circulation desk around five minutes later.
The library has a partnership with the Google Books mass digitisation project, and an expanded digitisation lab will allow the library to digitise its rare materials on-site and make them available to users online.

The University of Johannesburg's library services introduced a mobile platform earlier this year, and Kovatcheva has been a passionate student of the new resources at her disposal. “To keep current with your young users, you have to adopt the tools they use.”

As a 'mobile librarian', Kovatcheva spends much of her time updating links on bookmarking site Delicious, organising digital content on subject portals, and otherwise providing library services 'on the go'.

She also keeps in touch with library users personally via Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, and IM chat. “I'm doing everything I've been doing for the past 30 years, but I'm adopting Web and mobile to do it, which is changing the way I interact with clients.”

The list of tools is exhaustive - YouTube, Wiki profiles, Mind Maps, Scribd, LinkedIn, blogs, and virtual learning accounts - to name a few, but it also reveals a 'try and see' approach that's a marker of today's online world. “I don't know anything but I'm learning”, as Kovatcheva says, is the slogan for the new media age.

“I have been a traditional librarian, moved to being an online librarian, and then learned how to be a 'social librarian'. Now I'm experimenting with how to be a mobile librarian. The excitement is that you can do it and have the opportunities to walk the extra mile.”

For Kovatcheva, the reasons for becoming au fait with modern information tools are compelling: “[It will] prove that librarians are still on the market and will continue to play a role in the exchange of information and knowledge.

“It allows you to express yourself directly via social tools, discuss current issues, and share your thoughts with people who share your visions and ideas.”

Kovatcheva adds that this enables librarians to have a dynamic presence in the spaces users already are. “The face of the library changes from being 'in there' to being 'out there',” she explains.

For librarians to continue to exist, a new survival guide needs to be written, according to Kovatcheva. “Information is everywhere, but instead of becoming obsolete, do what you've always done in a new way - be everywhere and make information available on social networks, mobile and so on - you still have a role as facilitator.”

She adds that age is not a barrier - it's an opportunity to explore new options. “Be open-minded. Don't say you are technologically challenged before you even try it.

“Grab the chance and buy your smartphone today. Collaborate and share information and knowledge by using blogs, wikis, Facebook, Twitter or whatever appeals to you and your users.”

She doesn't believe libraries as such will ever disappear - they will just adjust to the new needs of their users. “As librarians, we will be a hybrid type of traditional, online, mobile, virtual specialists.”

Information is moving at the speed of thought and librarians like Kovatcheva are putting great effort into matching its pace - to the point where they even lose touch with their original companions. “I'm so busy trying to keep up with all these new technologies, I almost never have time to read an actual book.”

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