Rhode Island Library Report
SCITUATE, R.I. (Sept. 18, 2012) – The director of the University of Rhode Island’s new communications school is challenging librarians to embrace the promise of the computer/ digital revolution, rather than grieve the end of a simpler time when books were libraries’ major currency.
“As we – meaning librarians – are able to look outward and be really connected, we have lots of opportunity,” said Dr. Renee Hobbs. “And that is going to be the secret, as we move from being book depositories and into being community connectors.”
Director of URI’s Harrington School of Communication and Media, Hobbs spoke today at a three-hour conference of library directors convened by the state Office of Library and Information Services at the North Scituate Public Library.
Hobbs compared the upheaval caused by digital technology to that nearly 600 years ago when the printing press transformed a mainly oral society into a “book culture.”
“We are all in the process of reinventing ourselves, because the nature of knowledge is changing,” she said.
HOBBS IS NOT JUST A MESSENGER. She is likely to be a key player who will prompt many of those changes, both in Rhode Island and nationally.
A former professor of communications at Temple University, Hobbs created the Harvard Institute on Media Education and came to the Harrington school in January as its founding director.
The new school is bankrolled by a $5.5 million donation from Richard J. Harrington, a URI graduate and former president of media company Thomson/Reuters. The school will combine six departments: journalism, public relations, film/media, communication studies, writing and rhetoric and the graduate school of library and information studies.
It’s a controversial concept, linking formerly separate academic programs, upsetting especially to those who fear loss of independence and traditions in their professional specialties.
Librarians will need new skills, Hobbs said, as their institutions, already computer hubs and lenders of electronic books, “reach out and support their communities.”
“Wouldn’t it be cool if every librarian became an effective public speaker?” Hobbs said. “Every librarian needs public relations skills, because you have to tell your own story – because nobody else will.”
Hobbs invited suggestions about the training of librarians in the digital age:
“How might a librarian benefit from opportunity for professional development in the areas of public relations, film media, digital composition? And how might we support the information needs of library information professionals?”
THE AUDIENCE OF ABOUT 35 did not dispute the scope of the changes underway, but some said diminishing money from government and other sources is hampering their efforts to institute changes.
Howard Boksenbaum, the state’s chief library officer, whose office arranged the conference, said he didn’t want to sound like a “downer,” but noted the strain on institutions, many in decline.
“We need to keep up with it,” Boksenbaum said of new technology. “But how do we manage to insert it in the do-more-with-less environment we live in.”
An audience member put the issue this way:
“It’s not that we are focused on what we’ve lost. It’s just what we are doing now is not dead. It’s hard to have the resource to add this, (when) we don’t have the resource to do that.”
Several said that although their libraries offer a powerful array of on-line databases, e-books and other digital resources, even veteran patrons don’t know they are available, despite notices in newsletters and news articles.
Hobbs said she had no simple answer of how librarians can help a new generation of young computer and digital device users who don’t understand how much help they need.
A "DIY" (do-it-yourself) generation is used to sitting in front of a computer and trying to figure out how to use new software or equipment, she said.
While they often can navigate by themselves, they run into real trouble in not understanding how much more they need to know, and a consequence is that potential information technology jobs go unfilled.
"YOUR PROFESSION IS BUILT on this idea of being available to provide help to people who know that they need help,” Hobbs said. “What happens when you have a whole culture that suddenly thinks they don’t need help? I don’t think anybody’s figure that out.”
One person complained that when federal grants are outlined seeking proposals for “digital literacy,” libraries are sometimes not named specifically, despite their resources.
“You’ve nailed a really important thing,” Hobbs said. “One thing is really certain is that you do not own the concept of digital literacy. You do not.”
Libraries, just like other institutions and professions, have to work together and with other agencies to adapt to the new digital age, she said.
“We are in the transition phase, where our tendency is to look backward and think about what we’ve lost, instead of like looking outward and seeing what we might gain through partnerships.”
Working with other others, Hobbs said, has enormous potential: “It should make everyone in the room feel tremendously optimistic about the future.”