the future of humans in a self-service library world

At the CILIP Graduate Day last month, a couple of questions came up both in the panel discussion and after my own presentation, about the future of actual living breathing staff in libraries. It’s a fair enough thing to ask about on a day designed to some degree to attract people into the profession – will there even be a profession to be a part of in 20 years time?  I answered positively at the time - I’ve since given my off-the-cuff analogy with drum-machines a bit more thought, so I figured it was time to make the great drumming and librarianship connection in a blog post…  

the missing link?

I’m a drummer, so this is a subject I know something about. In the early 80s, the advent of the drum machine seemed to sound a death-knell for drummers. Not only were drum machines cheaper by the hour than humans, they were part of a trend towards new technology which had the effect of making those artists clinging to the old ways look old-fashioned. (In the end, very few groups I can think of survived the 80s without taking on some drum-machine action, and partly as a result of this and largely as a result of the whole musical culture of the time, a hell of a lot of God-awful music was produced during the period. Even proper rock bands like Led Zep were determined to embrace the new technologies and not been seen as dinosaurs as the new decade dawned – I’ve convinced that only the end of the group caused by the death of their drummer, the great John Bonham, prevented them from taking a path into naff 80s technology led musical hell which would have been entirely prohibitive to the legendary status they enjoy today. But I digress…) A lot of drummers panicked, and many quit the music business entirely, to get proper jobs.

Two things emerged from this. Firstly, the smart drummers learned to programme drum machines, and were able to continue to earn a living by using the new technology rather than fighting it. Secondly, after the initial rush to use programmed beats, many people eventually missed the human element and went right back to employing real humans to play real drums. (There’s also a third aspect, which is that there is a big trend at the moment towards the live reproduction of programmed drums during gigs; through the usual ‘knowing someone who knows someone’ type sequence of events, I’ve been lucky enough to play drums as part of a house band at a live Hip-Hop night for the likes of Roots Manuva, Estelle, Omar and many other people who use programming on their records and a full-band live).

So the net result is a relatively happy coexistence between the technology and the human input, with many of those session drummers who stuck at it in the 80s still able to make a good living today. Now, I’m not saying we in the library industry should be learning to programme self-issue machines. But there is a clear parallel in that we can either beat a hasty retreat and lock ourselves in a cupboard, or we can work with the technology and trust in the fact that there is nothing quite like taking away human interaction to show how much it is ultimately valued by customers / patrons / users. If self-service machines are good for the library, we should embrace them – even if jobs are at stake in the short-term, what is right for the customer is right for the customer and should be seen as a positive thing. If it turns out that an all self-service model is not right for many customers (as I suspect will be the case) then we need to be ready to work either instead of or with the machines and the technology.

My all-time favourite drummer Vinnie Colaiuta was asked: In many situations , has the role of the studio drummer been reduced to simply to the "overdub guy" replacing pre-recorded parts? His answer could just as well have been to the question, In many situations has the role of librarians been reduced to simply ‘the person who offers help when the self-service machinery doesn’t suffice'?:

Yes- and just why should that be considered a "reduction"? What kind of attitude is that? It's still a job to be done, and either you do it or you don't. What's the big whoop?

In the context of the article, he expands upon this theme and talks about learning to work with the technology. Which is why you’ll find the name of this incredibly virtuosic musician, who has played with Frank Zappa and Joni Mitchell and Herbie Hancock and so on, listed on the liner notes of the Pussycat Dolls album, and the Destiny’s Child LP. He was able to be flexible, to adapt, and to carry on providing a service – just as we Information Professionals will have to do.

-   thewikiman