What’s Wrong With This Picture!


I recently reacquainted myself with Google books Ngram Viewer – a seriously fascinating tool for research. Essentially, it allows users to compare terminology used in literature and identify trends of change over time. In their default example it compares Atlantis with El Dorado to note how the frequency of use of the two terms changed over time.

I wanted to compare some librarianship terms to see the frequency of their use in American literature over time, beginning in 1900 through 2008 (the most current literature in the database). “Librarianship – local library – library technology – 21st century” were the terms I first compared and obtained the results shown in the first graph below. It shows that use of the term “librarianship” (blue) peaked in the early 1980s and has declined since. Use of the term “21st century” (yellow) has been on a steady and accelerating increase since the 1980s.

In the second search (results below) I replaced “21st century” with “21st century library” (again yellow). The comparison reveals that “21st century library” is virtually non-existent in the literature. Not surprising.

The other interesting result is that “library technology” (green) peaked slightly in the mid-1970s and then was flat until an even smaller bump in about 2003, after which it flattened out again.

What is particularly fascinating are the “librarianship” (blue) peak in the literature in the mid-1970s and then again in the early 1980s before it began a jerky but steady decline, except for the slight bump in what appears to be 2003, and the steady increase in the rise of use of “local library” (red) in literature, until its steady decline after 2000. During a time when the focus should have been more on the local library, why would the use of the term in literature decline?

I hope I’m not the only one who is asking “What’s wrong with this picture?” Why in a time when libraries were on the cusp of such significant change – the Internet – was there a decline in discussion in the literature? Maybe some of you who have been in the profession since then can explain the drastic peak in the early 1980s, and the equally drastic decline in the discussion after that time.

I became introduced to the profession in the mid-1990s when the Internet was being introduced, yet the literature shows at that time the lowest point in use of “librarianship” (blue) since the 1950s. Why? The introduction of the Internet was a HUGE deal in library school in the mid-1990s. Why doesn’t use of the terms “librarianship” or “library technology” reflect that situation?

And again, why has the use of all these library related terms declined since 2000? At a time when there should have been intense focus on the impending changes and impacts, why was there a dearth of literature about the profession?

In my opinion, library leaders shrink from the unfamiliar. SLIS faculty – where ideas and innovation should reign – don’t know enough about external influences to understand their impact on librarianship. Therefore, they stop discussing it. No, that’s not quite accurate, they stop writing about it. As I recall there were only a couple of individuals in the mid-1990s who were looked to as ‘futurists’ in the profession. Every profession needs futurists – all the time.

One of the things I noticed at my first ALA conference in Chicago in 1995 was a LOT of discussion, and the years after were more discussion about the same topics. The last ALA conference I attended in D.C. in 2007 was a repeat of the same discussions on most of the same topics.

Librarians talk a lot, but don’t accomplish much toward evolving the profession. Can anyone explain why that is? Lack of leadership maybe?

2 Comments

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2 responses to “What’s Wrong With This Picture!

  1. Anonymous

    Great blog. My question is this: When are we as librarians going to quit talking about what the 21st century library is? We are 12 years into the 21st century and changes should have been well on their way to happening!

    • That sounds like my reaction to this topic when I began blogging two years ago and found hardly any online conversation, let alone published material on 21st Century Library – ONE DECADE into the new century. Can any profession that is that slow to respond to world change possibly survive?
      Thanks for your comment.

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