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The fate of libraries - an international question

When we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings. Wendell Berry
National Library Board of Singapore conference – Day 2
Michael Keller, Stanford University,  began the day with a keynote, "A Knowledge-Based Web." One of the key things he mentioned was the emergence of what is being called Web 2.0, as described by O’Reilly. (A little reading for when I get home – why am always the last to know about these things?) Keller elaborated on the challenges of describing and organizing the web and is a champion for the Google Print book digitalization project.
After the keynote, I headed to the new National Library of Singapore building that recently opened, accompanied by my able guide, Mr Lau Kai Cheong, Director of Infocomm for the NLB. He gave a great tour including a visit to the “Pod,” an observatory at the top the building that gives commanding views of the city – even from the women’s restroom. (Don't ask.) The building is 16 stories tall and houses the library offices, a drama center, a public library area, traveling exhibits, and outstanding collections of Far East materials.

The architecture’s white, geometric structure is tempered by green plants throughout, including “sky gardens,” visible from the exterior of the building. It was interesting watching people do self-check-in and self-checkout of materials – a process using the RFID chips in the books. The kids seemed to enjoy the process especially. Despite the it’s high tech approach to library services, Dr, Varaprasad, the CEO of the National Board, believes his library is not cutting edge. (“But we  are not using RFID to do sorting for reshelving of materials!”) Cutting edge or not, Singapore has a world-class library that is obviously the end product of both visionary and humanistic thought.
After the tour, Mr. Lau treated me to lunch at the library’s café where visited about jobs, kids, and housing prices. Yup, we are more alike than different. We worry about our kids and think health care costs are too high. Mr. Lau exemplifies the spirit of hospitality (and even honor – deserved or not) I encountered in Singapore. There is a talent to making a guest feel welcome, especially one so far from home. Singapore may well serve as a model for the post-industrial age. It a country (city-state) without raw materials or a large cheap labor pool. It's vibrant economy is built entirely on the intelligence and creativity of its citizens.

The afternoon’s sessions revolved around the Knowledge Worker of the future. Some real commonalities among the three presenters:
  • Putting information into context and being able to use it purposefully and creatively are the hallmarks of the successful “knowledge worker.”
  • All librarians will need to see themselves as teachers.
  • And it is our EQ and interpersonal skills, as much or more than our technical skills, that will separate the successful from those less so.

A major thread of the conference was speculation (and concern) about the future role of the librarian. As one participant asked,  “When everyone is a “knowledge worker,” where does that leave us?" A great question that I hear everywhere I go – and asked not just by librarians, but by teachers as well. (I closed my part of the Q&A session with Wendell Berry’s great quote at the beginning of this entry instead of a pat answer - which I surely do not have.)

International conferences such as this one, are fascinating events.  Try one some time. (IASL is in Lisbon this summer and Sydney in 2006. Great excuse to see some places you've always want to see.)

Oh, I learned that one needs be accurate in one’s blog, even when reporting about a distant event. Another set of reactions to the conference can be found on Ivan Chew's The Rambling Librarian blog. Interesting to see another (valid!) perpective of the sessions as well as how one is perceived as a presenter. I was blown away  to read his posts! Thanks, Ivan!

Back in Mankato. Reflecting that two places where boredom is preferable to excitement are on airplanes and at the dentist office. 

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Reader Comments (1)

I think "The Fate of Libraries" is not only an international question, but also a perpetual one. Which, by the quote you cited at the beginning of your post, isn't a bad question at all, is it?
November 21, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterIvan Chew

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