“The Future of the Special Library: One Person’s Perspective” by R. James King (Serials Review, August 2004)

In 2004, R. James King worked as the Chief Librarian for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory’s Ruth H. Hooker Research Library in DC. His article “The Future of the Special Library” builds on a perspective combining article and research (A&R) as well public services. I found the short read extraordinarily insightful, though not without its challenges.

King’s overall vision for the future of the special library is one based in necessity, with his opening statement including “many libraries have adopted a defensive position, fighting to stay alive” (171). King goes into a brief approach to the special library’s history and function, though of course grounded in the experience and status of the Naval Research library.

While I found King’s comments on journals, conferences, and abstract and indexing (A&I) irrelevant to what Anna and I are hoping to accomplish with Seward Park, King’s introduced some powerful ideas and practical statements about the special library of the future.

The first branch of decisions stemming from King’s arguments involve the direction of the ILS (which is, for this independent study, the current task), and how much of the ILS service should be geared toward the physical collection (a minimum) versus web content. When we think of the ILS, we think of only the platform used for the typical functions of the library, including circulation, cataloging, reporting, the OPAC and so on. I would argue that the ILS vision includes additional digital elements of the library, including social network presence, the library’s website proper (not the OPAC), and the linkage between all of the library access points. How we discuss the web and weaving of these elements will have to occur following the decision on the ILS.

A part of the ILS discussion includes user experience (UX) and user-centered design, which King addresses briefly (173). While I don’t think that Anna and I will have thorough control over the digital library’s appearance and usability, we will definitely have to make several decisions in terms of what can be searched and how it can be searched, what we hope to brand the digital elements of the library as, and how that branding meets the needs and goals of the library. Design will certainly come into play during our conversations with the staff at the Audubon Center going forward, and I don’t think that it will ever end either.

An extension of the design conversation lends itself to mobile access of the library and devices used within the library itself. Will it be best to have a full computer terminal for self-checkout in the library, or will a cheaper and sleeker tablet device be a possibility? “Devices are continuing to follow Moore’s law, getting faster and holding more storage each year. The only remaining barrier to handhelds becoming possible desktop replacements is the small screen size . . . Having a desktop computer that could fit in your pocket and be always ‘on’ may be useful but also may usher in the 168-hour workweek, if we are not careful” (174). King’s statements couldn’t be truer, though I don’t think the mobile device as time-consumer will be an issue after the device is learned and its functions are constrained. Another factor King doesn’t raise is that of security. How secure is a tablet versus a heavy computer, when faced with the general public? And another issue that we’ll be facing is whether to use the existing technology, the computer terminal already existing within the library, or attempt to flash-fund the cost of the tablet.

King’s final arguments concern embedded librarianship (which I often feel like I’m on my way to learning quite intimately through this project) and the traditional role of the librarian as book-guarder (174). The underlying theme of course is that the library is a place. It is place, to use King’s term. It’s a central point to access information and facilitate knowledge, and has a ton of potential in how it goes about doing it. After we succeed in establishing a catalog for the library and ensuring circulation policies have been worked out as best as possible, I think that the most important assistance Anna and I can provide is reinforcing the place-ness of the library and how the Audubon Center can continue to expand the place’s functions. The Audubon Center currently operates so successfully with its programming that to think about what the library can achieve above and beyond a solid and successful state the Center currently holds will be extremely challenging but potentially rewarding. One idea I’ve thought about is combining naturalist literacy programs, storytelling, and particular readings/activities based around traditional books but also around research and projects for the general public. Maybe the Center’s library will amplify the maker-space-esque movements we’re seeing around the country, which the Audubon Center already lends itself to in spirit as a building within a city park.

For a conclusive moment, let us return to R. James King. King’s special library is quite different from the Audubon Center’s library; however, his perspective still stands firm. As we go forward with the library that not only represents the Audubon Center but Seward Park as a whole, I will personally be excited to see how we address issues like the focus on user-centered design both in and out of the OPAC, the implementation of devices (and technology in general) into the library, and the “library as place.” I imagine these broad categories of concerns will be developed and responded to organically; however, thinking of them now ensures we do not pass up the potential the library offers to the community when it comes to their collections, information services, and community-centered programming.


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