Libraries and Knowledge Management

Many people think of libraries and librarians as being involved in a rather dry and now antique type of “information management.”  That’s not far off the mark regarding much of what librarians are traditionally thought to do.

On the other hand, the “tradition” of what librarians actually do seemingly involves what people experience at the circulation desk, where there are few if any actual librarians in sight.  There are, to be sure, librarians working in cataloging departments and creating the self-serve “machines” that we call modern libraries through their work at standardizing records and marking books and such so as to make them sit in their proper places on our shelves.

But the librarians who work in other areas are actually involved in something other than “information management.”  They’re doing “knowledge management.”  And they are doing so in very different ways … rather as both baseball and football have the basic similarity of being games played with a ball.

It’s easiest to see this by going back a few hundred years to when humanist scholars began building libraries for well-heeled clients interested in the new learning (beginning with the Renaissance).  These early librarians created “book catalogs” listing what they had collected … but access to the collection was best done simply by asking for help.  They collected what they knew to be important.  Later generations of librarians were left with the lesser task of providing access without needing to understand the works (and their importance) themselves.

It was at this same period of time that the modern “professions” began to congeal out of various subsets of knowledge to join the older professions of clergy, medicine, and law.  One can argue, I think, that professions, themselves, comprise a type of “knowledge management” embodied within the individuals themselves, backstopped (as it were) by “information management” in the form of librarians and similar types who collect and thus “judge as useful” the recorded knowledges that comprise “what can be known” within a profession, therefore defining every profession’s actual content.

The early librarians were not a separate group of scholars from the early professionals – they were one and the same – the difference was one of emphasis.

Collection development librarians, today, are doing much what the humanist scholar-librarians were doing 250 to 500 or more years ago … though, in truth, much of their talent is wasted in acquiring material already judged as “useful” in the book reviewing literature aimed at librarians.  They should, in my view, be reviewing and acquiring (for online storage) the enormous amount of material which is becoming available as the various professional journals (and semi-journals) have adapted to the possibilities implicit in the Internet.

If the collection development librarians are the “baseball team,” the reference librarians are the “football team.”  Both rely upon their personal knowledge in order to provide library services, with collection development concentrating on the “input” that creates a collection and reference librarians concerned with the “output,” making date/information useful to people who do not know either 1) how to search in the appropriate place or manner or 2) not far enough along in their own subject understanding to proceed without help.

But that’s something I’ll take up at a later time.

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3 Responses to Libraries and Knowledge Management

  1. librarybob1 says:

    Nice link. Rather as the original encyclopedists imagined their very practical guide to what was important in the world (but, of course, there was also more than a hint of classicism about them!).

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