by Paul Gatz
Hours for the current semester are posted on the website and on signs located throughout the library. Special hours for breaks and holidays will be noted. Fifteen minutes before close, a circulation worker will walk through the library to notify patrons of the impending closing-time and encourage them to wrap up whatever it is they’re working on.
Every year, library workers will be subject to a performance review, measuring whether or not they have met certain performance objectives. Check-in meetings with supervisors every few months will help ensure that workers are making significant progress toward meeting their objectives.
The library director, together with the assistance of the librarians, will create a strategic plan, to be implemented over the next three to five years. In order to meet the plan’s objectives, action items will be assigned to individual librarians (sometimes as part of their annual performance objectives) or certain library departments or committees. Progress toward these objectives may be discussed at departmental or library-wide meetings, once a month or perhaps more frequently.
The regularity of these cyclical structures that we impose on the time of the library – openings and closings, due dates, regularly-scheduled meetings – lull us into an illusion of an ever-present now, a certain timelessness. It is within such an illusion that we ought to imagine Sisyphus happy – or in hell. Either way, the busy-ness of our regular work-a-day experience distracts us from considering that most uncomfortable of questions: what time does the library close – for good?
This is not to say that this is a topic that is ignored; clearly that’s not the case. For our colleagues in firm libraries, who have been re-branded and virtualized, the end of the library is indeed an active, or sometimes already a moot, issue. We are rushing toward the future, and we all should occasionally raise up our eyes from our pressing business to try to descry our rapidly-approaching destination.
There’s no need to review all of the technological innovations that have the potential to push the library into obsolescence, but I would like to note that changes in technology, by themselves, will not be solely responsible for the demise of the library, if it does in fact occur. The death of the library will not come because everything is online or because machine learning and big data displace human researchers, but because our users and stakeholders will believe these things to be the case. The fact that “not everything’s online” will not matter if younger law faculty do all their research on West or Lexis. The limitations of artificial intelligence are not as important as the perception of its power and efficiency.
Therefore, let us not confine our arguments to the merely empirical, the contingent. Librarians know that not everything’s online, that AI comes with small-print disclaimers – but these things could change. When everything is online, when artificial intelligence does know better than you what it is you need – what then? Will we find that the library too is contingent – that it might as well not exist? Or will we be called upon to defend the library as necessary?
Well, is the library necessary? (What a great, click-bait-y title for a blogpost!) That’s a tough nut to crack – necessary for what? For a well-informed citizenry? For a growing information economy? For an open and equal system of law and justice? Clearly, law, society, and economy all depend on information. Information is all around, and it is becoming more accessible, both in the sense of its availability and retrievability, and this accessibility will only grow. What can the library add to that?
As a mausoleum or a warehouse, the library will have less and less to offer. As a system for organization and retrieval, it risks being eclipsed. As a quiet space for both individual reflection and shared study, it has only the momentum of history to sustain it. If the library is necessary it is not as a thing, but as an action. Not a noun, but a verb.
For it is the actions – the work – of librarians (whatever they may be called) that create what is most valuable in the library: its humanity. For however much information and data are important to law, the economy, and society, these are all human endeavors that involve human actors. In order for those human actors to meaningfully use that information, they must understand it. Understanding involves context and interpretation, helps us to deal with uncertainty, and inoculates us to misinformation, disinformation, and outright falsehoods.
It is the presence of the human in the library – in the systems we create, the collections we curate, and the relationships we build – that facilitate the transformation of the torrent of information into the clear skies of understanding. It is why we must treat our work with the greatest of care and not slide into the mechanical boredom associated with the cycle of checklists and deadlines. It is the caring that is the work of librarianship – that is what it means ‘to library.’ And that is what makes the library necessary.