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Library 2.0: the changing face of libraries

The landscape of libraries and the profession of librarianship are constantly evolving. The word “library” may conjure up an image of an old building smelling of even older books in the mind of the public and “librarian” may still make many people recall a shushing spinster. In reality, the 21st century library and the 21st century librarian have moved light years beyond those worn-out stereotypes. Today’s library is a transformed space that exceeds its physical boundaries and reaches into cyberspace. Today’s librarian must be tech savvy and remain attuned to a body of users with an enormous range of needs and aptitudes. Meanwhile, the language used to describe libraries and librarians has kept pace with the changes in the field, in some cases leading to confusion among users and controversy among practitioners.

From cataloguing to metadata

One need only look at a selection of library job titles to begin to understand the new and varied roles filled by librarians these days. Words like “digital,” “electronic,” and “automation” increasingly appear in librarian’s titles. Traditional library roles are getting modern facelifts as well. The title Metadata Librarian has begun to eclipse the more familiar Cataloguing Librarian in academic libraries. This new title reflects the proliferation of electronic resources and the accompanying metadata that chart those resources for easier navigation.

New library position titles reflect not just new technologies, but also a changing relationship between librarians and patrons. For example, many libraries now have a User Experience Librarian on staff in a move toward a smoother user-to-library interaction. As libraries rethink this crucial relationship, the very definition of what a library is and what services it provides are under examination. The term that has come to encompass this new approach is Library 2.0. Similar to the more widely used Web 2.0, Library 2.0 refers to an emerging model of library services that emphasizes user feedback and participation. The “2.0” moniker suggests a complete overhaul of the old concept of a library (the supposed Library 1.0) and also positions the library as a vital and current institution through association with the Web 2.0 term.

Libraries within primary and secondary schools have experienced name changes as well, certainly in the USA. The name of the physical space has tried on a few different descriptors, from plain old school library to media center to learning commons. The title of the person who works in that setting has also varied and been subject to contention. In 2010, the American Association of School Librarians voted to recognize School Librarian as the official job title of their profession, replacing the previously preferred designation, School Library Media Specialist. This decision met with some controversy. One blogger who objected to the change advocated instead for another common title, Teacher Librarian. In this case, the titles did more than describe the job—they established the role of the librarian firmly within the educational system.

Goodbye library, hello iSchool

One of the most discussed and most contested terminological shifts in librarianship is in the names of the graduate programs from which librarians receive their degrees. Early graduate programs for librarian hopefuls in the United States offered the Masters in Library Science (MLS) degree. In the last few decades of the 20th century, schools began incorporating the term “information” into their names to reflect the rise in significance of information sources that were not contained in books or restricted to physical library buildings. More librarians began to graduate with an MLIS, with an added “I” for information. These days the L-word is disappearing from university programs altogether in favor of the I-word. Of the top twenty Library and Information Studies graduate programs ranked in 2009 by US News and World Report, only half even had the word “library” in their names while all incorporated the word “information.” Several of these programs now go by the punchily abbreviated name of iSchool (no relation to the Apple products in your backpack, despite the familiar i- prefix). Many factors contribute to the decrease of “library” in these school names and the predominance of “information.” One explanation is that the change in nomenclature reflects a shift toward thinking of librarianship as only one subcategory under a larger umbrella of disciplines that relate to the organization of information. A more skeptical view is that the term “information science” carries more prestige than “library science” and thus graduates garner higher salaries.

What makes a library a library?

As libraries and librarianship are recast in new roles, we must ask some fundamental questions about the language we use to refer to them. Is a library even a library anymore when the etymological root of the word (from Latin libr- ‘book’) becomes less and less relevant? Are librarians still librarians when that L-word disappears from the degree programs that train them? While the landscape shifts and the lines between disciplines blur, the language continues to accommodate these changes, at times awkwardly, at times gracefully. Today’s library may little resemble the library of a century ago, but the common word “library” traces the lineage of an enduring, if evolving, institution.

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