How good librarians have made themselves obsolete to some users

Yes, libraries have a place and function - but academics and researchers can get along just fine without them. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

There is a growing discussion about the role of libraries in Africa and how the internet may threaten their continued existence.

I am among those who no longer uses libraries to do my work as a researcher and academic. This journey started 20 years ago and was one I embarked on thanks to the hard work of good librarians whose innovations convinced me I’d do just fine without them.

This is not to suggest that other people should not use the library. On the contrary: free public libraries, like symphony orchestras, are essential elements of civilisation and it is our duty as taxpayers to support them to the hilt.

Libraries are warm, dry and safe spaces with free internet, which many people need. They play a critical and well-documented role in under-resourced communities

Libraries have always been safe, intellectual spaces and spaces for exploration. I like my colleague Lara Skelly’s suggestions about how they could innovate to hold that position.

But 20 years ago I discovered the internet and everything changed.

The first steps on the journey

In 1994 the internet was populated with Usenet groups. These were basically bulletin boards. Today they’d be called blogs, but they were far less sophisticated. There I found many academics who freely shared information that I couldn’t find in the library.

I also joined my first Listserv mailing list, an address to which one sent a message – and knew that more than 1000 academics were receiving it and could reply. Every month someone would post an article and we’d discuss it. In this way I became personal friends with the gurus in the field.

The journey away from libraries continued in 1995 when I discovered the World Wide Web. A year later, I built my first online classrooms. There were blackboards on which students could write, and each student had their own “desks”.

In some ways it was a very early version of Facebook: students filled their “desks” with links to interesting things they had found. Today that’s called sharing on your wall, or pinning something to a Pinterest board.

Then, at the end of the 1990s, Google was launched. Why would I ever need to use a library again?

A network at your fingertips

Today, my most important safe, dry space is my bed. I spend the first hour of every morning there, catching up on current affairs as well as the latest trends and developments in my field. I learn who is working on what publications and who is taking what perspective on what current debate in the field. My peers’ most recent research outputs are there for me to browse.

If you ask my family what I do first thing in the morning, they will say I sit in bed “Facebooking”. The truth is that my Facebook news feed has become my primary newspaper and academic digest.

By carefully selecting whom I follow and to which groups I belong, and thanks to Facebook’s algorithm, my “likes” and “shares” tailor my news feed around my own preferences. It took some finetuning, but my news feed has developed so much that I feel confidently updated in the most relevant aspects of my field.

As I read my morning news feed I share relevant posts with my students, colleagues and academic network, often tagging people whom I think would be especially interested in a topic. Sometimes I post something unread, then get such a good response to it that I read it myself. This informal “crowdsourcing” allows me to evaluate material before reading it.

My colleagues and students tag me so I’m alerted to relevant, must-read information. Why would I need a librarian to recommend readings to me?

To integrate Facebook further into my life I use an app called IFTTT (If this then that) to forward every Facebook post I make to Twitter and LinkedIn. IFTTT also saves a copy of every post to Evernote, which I use as a searchable archive. Once I have shared something on Facebook, I can always find it on Evernote. I never have to look for information from scratch.

Social networks as an academic resource

Free, fast internet means that I can get the freshest, most important research-related information before it reaches the library. Most of my academic peers and their graduate students have active blogs and Facebook pages on which they share their progress. They also share links to articles they are currently reading and make “listicles” to summarise their research in a 2-minute read.

Social bookmarking sites like Diigo and Delicious allow me to list and tag my own favourite links, to see who else tagged those sites and which other sites they tagged. Much as I would have browsed the shelves of a library, I now click my way through a vast selection of related terms.

Two online communities, Academia.edu and Researchgate.net, are social media of a different kind. They allow me to keep up with my peers’ formal academic work. Once it comes to writing up my own research I use Google Scholar for searches and load every reference I’ve gathered to Mendeley, a free reference and PDF manager. Mendeley groups allow me to share articles with other academics in the field.

Life after libraries

The irony of all this is that I learned most of these techniques from enthusiastic librarians in my classes, at conferences, through conversations in the corridor and even via email and Facebook.

Just like that, they have worked themselves out of a job by enabling me with all the tools I required to get along very well without them.

Thanks to the hard work and innovation of librarians and information specialists worldwide, and thanks to their dedication to free and shared resources, I am doing just fine without libraries.