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Do universities need libraries? Isn’t Google free?

On Friday I gave a lunchtime talk to the UC Berkeley Foundation (about 100 people — mostly alumni donors —  who manage and lead fundraising on behalf of the campus).  I offered an historical framing of just how significant the digital information revolution is going to be (so much more so than we’ve already seen), and why that means we need information professionals more than ever.

I posted the slides to SlideShare, but I tend to use just a few slides to illustrate my points while talking, so I posted them with the script included.

Here is the abstract:

The Gutenberg revolution was an enabler and shaper of the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Scientific Revolution. It did so through a small, simple technological advance: merely a reduction in cost and increase in accuracy for information reproduction. But from that modest technological change, one-to-many communication became practical.

The digital revolution accomplished the same feat, only more so: the incremental cost of information reproduction is now about zero; reproduction accuracy is about perfect. And a new impact: information distribution is instant. These are even greater transformations than the Gutenberg press, which enabled and shaped the Protestant Revolution, the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. The impacts on civilization of the digital revolution over the coming decades and centuries will be even greater.

Though information is now abundant, finding, evaluating, making sense of and using *good* information is harder. In the Information Age, we need librarians and other information professionals more than ever.

Looking forward

[I sent this message to all library staff today, my first on the job as University Librarian at UC Berkeley (slightly edited to remove some local info).]

Our campus is one of the top research universities in the world. To support our campus, our library should be no less.

What do we need to accomplish?

The Commission on the Future of the UC Berkeley Library concluded in 2013 that “the most important contribution of the research university library in the next twenty years will be to provide the increasingly sophisticated human expertise required to successfully navigate [the] rapidly shifting heterogeneous terrain” [emphasis added]. I agree.

Every well-educated, successful participant in the modern world needs to be information fluent. With the explosive and low-cost abundance of information resources, everyone needs to be their own librarian, finding and evaluating information all day long, every day. That doesn’t mean there is no role for us: just the opposite. First, we are needed to help our students and faculty become information fluent. But even though every college graduate can write, we still need professional writers in our society. And even when we elevate all of our students and faculty to more advanced levels of information fluency, our second responsibility will be as expert informationists, working with them to solve their more challenging and advanced information problems in this “rapidly shifting heterogenous terrain.”

The rapidly growing availability of new data, and computational tools to analyze them, provides one of these emerging challenges for many. Most of our faculty and students are not yet trained or equipped to provide for all of their own data curation, management and preservation needs. As the core provider of advanced information service on campus, we must further develop our expertise and provide an ever stronger set of data services to campus. We won’t provide all data services by ourselves of course, but will create a complete portfolio through partnerships with other campus units.

The University’s mission is to “discover knowledge and to disseminate it to its students and to society at large.” To support this, we must make it easier for scholars to engage in open access dissemination. At the same time, we have to work to create a more financially sustainable publishing ecosystem so that we can afford to provide access to scholarship at the same time as we deliver our other services. Our faculty and students will benefit from more open and lower cost dissemination, and the whole world will benefit from greater access to Berkeley’s discoveries.

We have many great spaces for contemplation and study. But the ways are changing in which students and faculty engage with information, and with each other as they use information to advance learning and discovery. We need to re-envision and re-design many of our spaces to support an age of interactive, connected and collaborative learning and discovery. For example, students need more sophisticated, powerful access to local and remote information collections, and to use new technologies to find, evaluate and use this information. We can provide them with access, training and experience to prepare them for their future. Equally or more important, students need access to each other — face to face and virtually — to engage in connected, collaborative learning, discovery and knowledge production. We should provide spaces, technologies and human expertise to make our libraries the vibrant, go-to campus hubs for connected learning. The just-initiated renovation of Moffitt 4 and 5 is a first step in this initiative.

None of this is to say that we will abandon our collections, nor that we will stop building them. But our mission is not building collections for their own sake, but helping people to find, evaluate and use information. In some cases the most important way to help is to continue to build and preserve our tremendous collections of print and physical and digital objects, and we will devote considerable effort and resources to doing so. In other situations we should focus on providing advanced services to help people access, evaluate and use digital resources owned and stored elsewhere.

More than anything else we must provide professional, advanced service. Our people — you — are our most valuable resource.

We are at the dawn of the second Gutenberg age, with information production and dissemination growing explosively. Societies have evolved from primarily agricultural, to industrial, to service-based, and now we are entering the Information Age. At this time society needs ever greater knowledge institutions. What an exciting time for a university research library.

For me, this isn’t a job, it’s a passion, and I’m on a mission. Let’s make great things happen together.