Thursday, May 15, 2008

The 3rd LAS conference: Choy Fatt Cheong - (Part 3)

[From Part 2]

Choy said he hesitated to talk about Librarianship.

"It sounded like an old-fashioned word".

Originally uploaded by Damien Wang

He confessed that when he started out as a librarian (he came from an engineering background) he wasn't too comfortable with being called "a librarian".

But the word became more endearing to him over time.

Mr. Choy, the head of NTU libraries, was the keynote speaker on Day-One. He titled his talk: "Librarianship: What is it about now?

What we do everyday isn't science, he said.

But the term was still relevant; it puts the library in the centre.

(I agree with Choy. Calling myself the Rambling Information Specialist just doesn't have the same ring to it, heh).

Still, Choy suggested that the term "Librarianship" failed to adequately describe what librarians really did for a living.

He shared how he polled his NTU library colleagues on what librarians did, and a recurrent theme seem to focus on "serving users".

This contrasted sharply with the time when he started his career, where librarianship seem to be focused on buildings.

"Today we are much more obsessed with the relationship with users, for very good reasons," said Choy.

He asked these questions aloud:
  • Do users still want librarians to help them?
  • Are people concerned enough to spend time and effort to obtain reliable information?
(Which I took to mean: Will librarians still have jobs?)

He qualified that it wasn't that libraries of earlier years weren't interested in serving users. Just that libraries could afford to "treat their users with less enthusiasm". It didn't mean poor service, just that "user-centered thinking wasn't a high priority". Meaning, in the past, the content and access technologies were only available to librarians.

The need to gain user attention
Choy remarked that librarianship today demanded much more thought on "how to gain user attention".

Librarianship was no longer centred in the backroom but at the frontline.

Librarians need to be able to "strive in the hustle and bustle of human relationships".

Choy suggested that (university) librarians should offer to help teaching staff set up class blogs, or customise digital libraries for users.

Libraries as Intermediaries
The quality of information on the Internet is improving in quality.

One needs an intermediary (like librarians) when there are barriers (to information). But barriers to information are rapidly dissolving.

However, he felt that intermediation roles still exist: Rules for sharing resources, and negotiation with information sellers.

Libraries and librarians face two obstacles in trying to play the intermediary role:
  • We're not on users' radar screens
  • Users may not want us as part of their equation
Choy says "early intervention" is needed to instill "good information habits". He said not enough is being done.

He ended his talk by saying "the intensity in which we interact with users will determine the success of libraries".

Libraries should make use of our current user-centric approach. Librarians should modify our current skills to create new and innovative value-add fuctions.

Originally uploaded by Damien Wang

My Thinking Aloud
I think Choy's speech provided context to librarians who joined the profession in the last five years.

But to the "seasoned librarians", Choy offered no specific answers, really.

In truth, I don't think anyone can.

I wished Choy had gone more in-depth and shared specific examples of the changes he's implemented at NTU libraries since he took over as the head. I've heard news of some developments. Like the decentralising and creation of subject libraries, the hiring of more librarians.

For instance, I think during Q&A, Choy mentioned about how he faced skepticism (from colleagues, I presume) when he suggested that NTU librarians send a letter to every single new NTU student. To offer themselves as the individual student's personal librarian.

His point was that not every student would contact the librarian. I agree.

And even if they did, they may not make the contact all at once. Or if they really did (like, nearing exams or critical assignment periods), I'm sure a competent librarian would be able to anticipate all that and put out information in blogs or the library website.

But I suppose he didn't want to make his talk to be "about NTU". A shame, in thought. It seems to me they are doing good work there.

Maybe Choy should start his own blog.

I know he'll say he won't have time (we've had a similar conversation before, heh).

But I feel he'd be blogging not for himself, but for Singapore Librarians in general.

Afterall, he's been the president of LAS for several terms, a former NLB Board member, an academic, a entrepreneur who ran his own library consultancy business, and more. And now the head of NTU libraries.

I'm sure he has lots of anecdotes and insights to share.

I'm confident he'll be on some users' radar screen -- potential NTU students -- at the very least.

[Next: Part 4]


  1. Hi Ivan,
    I think Mr Choy's suggestion that NTU librarians send a letter to each NTU student to identify themselves as their personal librarian is great. After all, this adds a human touch to these students as they'll be very green when they enter university. The students have just come from a more sheltered environment in JCs, and the first thing they may need is someone to hold their hands, and walk them through their stay in NTU, where the students will be facing huge amounts of information from NTU's huge store of databases, print collections and other digital collections like exam papers, thesis, etc.

    I feel that we librarians should take up all ways and means to reach out to the public. Whether it is reaching out to them via personal letters, outreach programs or even facebook, we should still try.

  2. Ivan

    Mr Choy's speech and your summation really strikes a chord. When information is ubiquitous, and we no longer have a role in circulating a physical item, where will that leave us librarians? Our relationship with users, as Mr Choy expresses it, is really all that will define whether we continue to exist as a profession.

  3. @Deb: And building relationships takes time. Which means, start now if we've not begun to do so. Or start in different ways, I think.


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