Why I have a Librarian Fetish

Dr Karin Geiselhart

submitted in June 2000 to the journal of Australian Academic and Research Libraries (AARL)


This journal has raised the issue of a crisis in scholarly communication [quote Peter’s intro to that same issue of AARL], and discussed the role of the academic library in supporting intellectual freedom [Byrne, same issue]. Here I consider the role of libraries and librarians, based on my recent experiences as an outsider. The context is partly the posing of a research question: How can libraries best continue to support democratic information flows in a globalised information economy? This discussion draws on the author’s past and current research activities to offer some avenues for the protection of the librarian as a noble but somewhat endangered species.


Like many people, I had long taken librarians for granted, based mostly on childhood experiences. They occupied an intellectual niche similar to that of nurses in the medical sphere: caring and capable, but not shapers of their own professional context. Working with books and scholars in quiet, respectable surrounds would surely be a privileged and appealing occupation. In the early 1980s the term ‘information broker’ first set lights flashing in my neural pathways. Well before ‘information superhighway’ entered the vernacular, a bright young librarian studies student told me how she planned to capitalise on the opportunities that access to electronic information was opening up for her.

Many years later, with little intervening academic contact, I meandered into PhD research (it is pertinent to this story that the driving force was to escape the public sector). I suddenly found myself surrounded by librarians. They kept popping up: running the best electronic mailing lists, offering the best academic support, sharing the best information leads, and pursuing the most relevant research avenues. Often they weren’t working as ‘librarians’, and their deeper professional identify was only revealed over time.

Since my research involved information and its dissemination, I soon stumbled (a tried and true methodology) into some literature about the role of the public library and how it had dealt with issues of intellectual freedom and censorship in the era of print media.

The Librarian and the Cave

Through such readings as Reinecke (1989), Sawer (1996), and Kadie (1996) it became clear that the role of libraries and their dedicated professionals was more than just a pleasant by-product of advanced industrial society. Unlike sewage pipes and cinema complexes, libraries underpin our ability to reach consensus on other social goods. I began to formulate an image of the Librarian as Ideal Intellectual Worker, even as the shadows of globalisation and the commodification of information danced about my dimly lit cave of understanding. I only knew that working with academic colleagues and librarians was like drinking at a stream of fresh water, compared with the enervating public sector culture.

It soon became clear that librarians have always been at the forefront of the information revolution. With their inobtrusive and often undervalued skills they saw it coming and leapt in. Their motivation has not been institutional or personal benefit, although that scenario has long been rearing its privatised head. Rather, librarians are simply professionally predisposed to share information and to assist others to access it. They manage information so that they can share it. These values, of course, make them dangerously subversive to the liberal agenda.

Bifurcation Time

But then we live in dangerous times, particularly for those who seek refuge in the stability and security of past patterns. It would be hard to think of a profession more involved in the transition to an information-based economy than research and academic librarians. The impacts are at least three-fold: the acquisition of skills and technology; setting new directions and reorienting services; and the human issues, where changes in control and inputs are transforming the concepts of both ‘academic’ and ‘librarian’ at the most personal level. These issues are inevitably entwined, and all are important. However, I believe organisational and personal issues are critical to shaping the future of the public access library.

One of the librarian profession’s proudest points is their stance on intellectual freedom. These principles are embedded in the charters of library associations, and grew from Jeffersonian values that maintained true democracy could only survive through the participation of a literate and informed citizenry. In Australia, British ideas of social liberalism helped to shape key institutions. Free public access to libraries and galleries was a vital element in reaching the goal of ‘active citizenship’, as individuals were only considered to reach their full potential through their interactions with the wider community (Sawer 1996).

In this context, widely embraced until quite recently, libraries were champions of equal and equitable access to information (Reinecke 1989). The state provided the support for libraries and universities to assist individuals and scholars to access a whole world of diverse knowledge. Issues of censorship and the protection of minors were generally dealt with sensitively and practically (Kadie 1996). More recently globalisation and its homely sibling, public sector reform, have redefined the role and value of information.

By definition, an information economy places a premium on information and its presentation, repackaging and delivery. The current thrust of globalisation concentrates control of information creation, ownership and dissemination in ever fewer corporations (Herman and McChesney 1999, Lyon 1988). The resulting pressures on libraries, and the conundrum for libraries and free public access have been widely discussed (Reinecke 1989, Branscomb 1994, Haywood 1995). The overzealous application of intellectual property laws also can have negative impact on smaller producers such as Australia (Martin 1998, FIN Rev article). The interplay of these developments and the convergence of media, telecommunications and computing has been widely recognised as an issue for libraries as democratic institutions (Schaefer 1995, Bollier 1997).

That’s why a basic Internet search on libraries + globalisation yields over 8,000 hits. At least one online bibliography has been compiled just to track the discussion on the future of libraries (Gurstelle 1999), with predictions ranging from their total disappearance, to libraries without librarians, or even fully privatised models. While some still see librarians as honest information brokers, others accuse them of becoming book burners, when they capitulate to demands for Internet censorship, or if they forsake print acquisition while pursuing unbalanced digitisation. Certainly, endowments such as Bill Gates of computer equipment and software will not overcome the problems of the ‘digital divide’, as the costs of maintaining and providing the skilled support staff (ie, librarians) would still have to be met from diminishing public coffers (Nunberg 1998).

A related issue is the diminishing ability of academic libraries to provide the non-academic public with access to electronic databases. This aspect of the academic library has been a low key service to the community, and was viable as long as the costs of licensing were not prohibitive. Now, such access has to be negotiated and could lead to much more limited public access. Policy changes, such as the exemptions from the Carrier and Carriage Service obligations of the 1997 Telecommunications Act, also affect Internet and database access by non-academic users.

Clearly, the traditional paradigms which have underpinned the funding, staffing, and stocking of libraries are being challenged by the emerging information-based economy. The academic researchers who rely on these libraries are likewise having their core business and activities redefined. A key question is: Will the new models of libraries continue to support public access? A related question is: How much say do academic librarians and researchers have in determining the future of their institutions?

The e-commerce connection

How can the humble library influence this course of events, when analysts note the diminishing power of the once mighty nation state? Perhaps there are aspects of these global trends that favour, rather than constrict, open flows of free information. A different model offers a robust alternative to the closing of the information commons. To begin with, the new economy is very much about new models of exchange. It is based on abundance, rather than scarcity (Bambury 1999). Much of the exchanges in the new economy are based on asymetrical value exchanges which resemble a true barter system, rather than traditional money-based markets (Ghosh). The success and survival of the open source software movement indicates that decisions made about information can occupy a new and different economic space. There is little doubt that novel approaches to the creation, maintenance and distribution of software are not just new economic models, but also an ideological challenge to the dominant monopoly model (Forge 2000).

The techniques of complexity theory are now being applied to human systems and their seemingly anarchistic, but also profoundly pluralistic, inputs (Stacey 1996). Systems with chaotic patterns can be inherently unpredictable. It will suffice here to note that attempts to possess and impose standard economic frameworks on the flow of information may ultimately be self-defeating. Mr. Gates current legal predicament may be part of a longer term nemesis.

At the very least, it would be unwise to ignore what have been called the ‘social contingencies’ of information technology (Feenberg 1991). Technology has always had this duality: the Russian Tsar built the trans-Siberian railway to better control his far flung empire, yet it became a channel for communicating disaffection and revolution (Haywood 1995:256-7).

Here ultimate success implies institutional sustainability over a time span of decades or longer, rather than the turnaround time of the next two CEOs. This is the only relevant time frame when considering the role of the public library. Within this perspective, it is quite possible that libraries will continue their evolution in ways that reinforce their egalitarian origins. Economic and public policy models need time to ‘catch up’ with the swirling changes that technology and information are creating.

The value adding to information that underlies electronic commerce is closely related to the argy-bargy that underpins democratic process. Both rely on the free exchanges, open-ended interactivity and dialogue that precede a decision, whether a purchase, a vote, or a policy. Thus, electronic commerce and electronic democracy are two sides of a coin. Countries such as China (and it seems, Australia, in relation to policies on digital television and Internet censorship) are learning to their cost that attempting to control the unfolding of new technologies or their content is both out-moded and counter-productive.

The Museum Educational Site Licensing Project (MESL) illustrates the kind of collaboration that is likely to bear both social and financial fruits over the longer term. This three year project brought together a number of American art museums and universities to explore intellectual property rights in relation to educational uses of digital images and to recommend models for site licensing. It was sponsored by the Getty Information Institute, which seeks to increase accessibility of art and culture through computer technology, with a special interest in digital libraries. Two independent business models grew out of the MESL, showing that applications can follow quickly and maintain a substantial public interest component. It brought together essential ingredients for success in the new world of globalised information: libraries, owners of intellectual property (the museums), a direct acknowledgement of the need to deal with legal issues, and a source of funding. This source might be venture capital or a philanthropic institution; the critical factor is alignment of values to include social benefit.

Governance is fractal

Librarians in general, and academic librarians in particular, have been very active in analysing and implementing new information structures that bring the new worlds of information, and its management, to end users. Harrison and Stephen (1996) provide many examples of such projects. It might seem to follow that within library structures, those who uphold these values of information access and the exploration of communication potential are rewarded.

Mostly libraries are publicly funded. They are products of state-centric government, even if at arms’ length through a university structure. One of the peculiarities of the current government ideology is the ‘managerialist’ mindset. This mindset is theoretically concerned with cost effectiveness and creating more flexible, client oriented services and outcomes, although often the major deliverable is a reduction in staffing and resources. Existing bureaucratic and hierarchical systems, including most libraries, can lose sight of social objectives and apply these principles in ways that present a rigid, top-down fait accompli and actually stifle innovation. True risk taking and experimentation with new economic models, and collaborative and participatory projects, are sometimes submerged by a combination of short term constraints and a search for technological panaceas.

More importantly, the traditional values underpinning public access to information are more or less incompatible with a narrow approach to cost recovery. These values can be reconciled if libraries are allowed to undergo a revitalisation that puts them at the centre of the information revolution. This is most likely to happen if their internal decision making adopts the more open processes that are now, ironically, associated with best practice in the private sector. An enthusiastic yet thoughtful proponent of globalisation, Thomas Friedman, notes that the democratisation of technology, finance and information is inadequate to the transformations now underway unless accompanied by the additional democratisation of decision making (Friedman 2000).

Singapore illustrates many of the contradictions of globalisation. There, a visionary but autocratic leader has allocated the huge investments necessary to develop Singapore as a model of the information society. Yet Singapore’s information policies aim to unlock individual initiatives and encourage greater input from both business and citizens.

I have suggested elsewhere (Geiselhart 1999) that human communication might be seen as fractal patterns, repeated with minor variations at every scale. Repressive governments are not the stars of the global economy. On a smaller scale, libraries will be most likely to adapt to the new information environment if they embrace the open structures that facilitate experimentation and innovation. These structures characterise the most lively, and successful, of the current crop of information companies. Libraries whose management is in the hands of closed, and clonal, thinkers will probably fare the worst over the longer term. The alternative hypothesis should be testable: those libraries that demonstrate the highest levels of internal participation and involvement will be best able to support themselves, their communities and wider democratic process.

The library as denkfabrik

Those who look at the library as a vital democratic institution see that its evolution has already begun. Many of the ironies of the Internet age contain templates for libraries. Web sites often exist to automate information, but the best ones have substantial human resources supporting, developing and maintaining them. The much-vaunted ‘democratisation of information’ has increased the need for elite information professionals. As essential faciliators (Missingham 1997), it is widely recognised that librarians are well-placed to help structure the mushrooming information resources in ways that benefit the broad community.

Information management has become the Sisyphean goal of every reader, and who but librarians can create the super-structures and meta-data we need? Librarians can practice their information husbandry on me, as I graze the global information commons. The value adding that libraries can provide is unlikely to be a bad investment in their future.

It is not just on the instrumental level of information management that librarians’ skills are vital. The other ‘meta’ needed is the re-articulation of pluralistic, socially sustainable values. Interactive communications can supplement and compliment existing means of meeting, sharing information and deliberating. Governments around the world are starting to apply such techniques to overcome the time and response lag in public policy.

From this perspective, the library can be a Denkfabrik, a ‘thought factory’, a verb as well as a noun, where the outputs are ideas, plans, goals, policies, consensus, awareness, knowledge. Libraries facilitate the integration of diverse networks, allowing communities of interest, whether virtual or geographic, to coalesce for short or long term projects, and then reform or dissipate. This model sees the librarian as professionally, although not necessarily personally, disinterested in the particulars, while passionately committed to an open and equitable process of information dissemination. Libraries are centres of networks of all kinds, firmly rooted in local and intellectual communities, and yet connected to all the world.


To a large extent, librarians, and libraries have provided me with the wherewithal to consider these issues, and to become involved in some small way in discussions about the shaping of the information society. Compared to the academic community, the public sector culture was disturbingly restrictive, with little opportunity to make a positive contribution (This culture is analysed in Geiselhart 2000). But even there, one of my favourite colleagues was the departmental resource librarian.

It is my contention that if they did not already exist, free public libraries could not now be ‘invented’. An economic analysis would clearly demonstrate that it is not cost effective (ipso facto not in the public interest) to have dedicated buildings with trained staff assisting the public to access free reading material. Compare the video store model with the public library model.

At the same time, libraries are providing powerful solutions and alternatives to such ultra-rational approaches. Initiatives such as the MESL, mentioned above, might be easier in Australia, given the relative ease of networking across smaller academic and intellectual communities, and the opportunity to learn from overseas. My bet is that the librarians who are innovators with a social vision will outshine and outlast dreary bean-counter managers, because the current climate ultimately rewards innovation. A quote from a librarian will finish this discursion, and illustrates why I will always relish my librarian fetish:

‘The greatest challenge for all of us is to prove that we, not the owners of the technology, are in control; that important as information is to each of us as individuals, it is the communities we belong to and the bonding they provide that make it worth something.’ (Haywood 1995:257).


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