“Special libraries – how to survive in the twenty-first century” by Roland Wittwer (The Electronic Library, 2001)

When you think of the library, what images come to mind first? I’m biased as a library student, but there was a time when I found the stereotypical stacks of books come forward in my mind every time someone uttered any form of the magic “L” word. But while the essence of the library will probably always be the symbolic essence behind the information resources within the library, the library is much more than that.

The contemporary library is a concept that is controversial. Many people who once praised the value of the library now grit their teeth and grimace when they think of the library’s relevance in the contemporary, Google-ified world we live in. The argument for the library in the 21st century has been one that has gone on for more than 13 years, but it’s an argument I still find myself having with strangers and friends and, go figure, other library students, nearly every day. As a poet, I know that this tension is good, healthy, and productive when approached critically; however, not everyone else looks at the argument being made as discourse. I want to talk a little bit about relevance and libraries in this post. I will use Witter’s 2001 article on special libraries in the 21st century as my lens, and the Audubon Center library as my metaphorical pivot table.

First of all, Wittwer’s article is not necessarily ground-breaking, though it provides a perspective specific to the special library evolution that may have been exceptional in 2001. Wittwer discusses research-centered corporate libraries primarily, but his points are extremely versatile in understanding the transformation needing to take place for the library (of any type) to stay relevant in the 21st century. As far as the Seward Park Audubon Center library project is concerned, the number one takeaway, the broader takeaway, is service and the number two takeaway, the narrower of the two, is interpretation. I will talk a little bit about each.

Wittwer is bent upon the library being not only a physical space but a concept of interlocked services. As I’m sure you can imagine, the librarian is the figure who binds the services together in a neat package. For Wittwer, services within the special library should be A) diverse and B) new. The librarian needs to figure out how to understand what services exist and what services do not: “What are the most important developments we have to adopt to our services? Where can we special librarians be of help to enhance business processes?” Wittwer asks (221). And then, a short while later: “[S]pecial librarians should not stop thinking about new ways to develop services for their customers who are involved in important meetings and thereby finding out what needs their customers really have. Information specialists must build close collaborations with business-process owners” (222).

The special librarian should, thus, have a tool belt that is, for lack of a better analogy, like the Library of Babel, a tool belt that encompasses all possible tool belts. This process-oriented role is more of a mindset than an actual map of processes, though the latter certainly comes out inevitably during the actual work of the librarian. How does this look in the Seward Park library? A great question. One of the benefits of our situation with the library is that we’re starting from a very minimal space. Once the ILS has been chosen, we will be able to put a lot of our grunt work into maximizing the effects of the ILS. But once the ILS is looking pristine–and most likely before that point exists–we can lend our hand with other services. We can be additional muscle to a service-oriented facility (the Audubon Center as a whole).

One of the challenges I always think about when discussing library evolution is the challenge of persuasion. Libraries have many associations, but libraries have the potential to do so much new, cool stuff. With the innovation of services, the special librarian needs to figure convince all other parties that the librarian can fulfill new tasks, new roles. For better or for worse, the librarian first needs to ensure that the library is functional and working as well as it can. This idea is hard for me to be completely okay with at the moment, as we’re currently in our waiting game for the ILS decision; however, I’m sure that Wittwer’s fervor for change and enhancement will be satisfied soon enough.

As mentioned above, the second major takeaway from the Wittwer article is interpretation. Interpretation is my word and not Wittwer’s, and I’ll explain what I mean when I say Wittwer encourages special librarians to fulfill the role of the interpreter. Essentially what it comes down to is this: in our hyper-digital age, there are so many new tools and networks and websites and applications emerging that it’s hard to know what works and what does not work. With the physical library being peripheral when it comes to information access points, librarians are now “cybrarians” who “must become comfortable with . . . new roles of data filtering, Web authoring, mapping and navigating digital information landscapes, handling dynamic resources and contributing to knowledge management in our own organizations” says Wittwer with help from Kranich (223).

A great relevant example of such knowledge management comes in the form of a discovery I made just yesterday. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology just released their Macaulay Library sound archive, which is one of the largest digital bodies of sound recordings in the world. As you can imagine, there are many natural sounds included, and many of those are of birds. The ability to know about this resource and actively promote its presence through the greater service of the library goes back to that interpretation quality I mentioned above.

As soon as we have our ILS up and running, the goal will be to have the OPAC and library website actively include and make visible links to more macro-level resources that exist. Wittwer isn’t only talking about connecting information resources; his discussion of the librarian as interpreter is far more holistic when it comes to education. What platforms exist, where technology is headed, and how people are getting their information: these points and more are what librarians need to understand (almost on an anthropological level) to present effectively to non-librarians. In managing such knowledge, librarians and library-oriented individuals such as Anna and I, will be able to once again prove value not only in our role but through the services provided by the library.

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