METRO Board of Trustees member Jeffery Olson is the Associate Provost for Online Learning and Services and Director of Library and Information Science at St. John’s University. An active member of METRO’s board, Olson serves as Board Secretary, and participates in both the Strategic Planning and Executive Committees. We recently spoke with him about his board involvement and his thoughts on where the library world is heading.
Given the magnitude of your professional responsibilities, why do you donate your time to board service at METRO?
My interest in serving on the METRO board is to do what I can to help ensure that as we face an uncertain future, libraries move in a direction that makes the most sense for the society in which we live. Libraries are facing a major transition due to digitization and the dramatically increased accessibility of books, information, and other material that libraries traditionally store. Some people think the library will disappear, while others believe libraries will become more important than ever.
I believe the outcome depends on how the library world responds. And I think METRO is strategically positioned to help promote meaningful responses to the changes we face, because of its location and the respect it has from its members.
With all that’s changing, what do you see as the “constants”—the things unlikely to change in the library world?
The core elements of librarianship will continue to be needed. You’ll always need someone to gather, store, preserve, organize, and index or meta-tag information and materials in a way that they can be retrieved and made available for patrons’ use. And you’ll always need people to help patrons find what they need. I think the service orientation that has characterized people who become librarians will remain very important, and may need to be emphasized even more. There’s still tremendous potential for us to improve service to patrons, to make literature, graphics, audio, video, data, and other information resources available in forms that are easier to find, use, and combine.
In a time when we hear so much about how technological and societal changes are reshaping library and information services, are there any issues you think are overlooked or under-recognized?
I think more attention is being given to where library and information services will end up and not enough attention is paid to the transitional paths for getting there. There’s also more attention on the items of information and not enough attention on all the different ways that these “information items” can be used and integrated.
We need to think much more about how people integrate different elements into their lives. We know from multimedia, for example, that when you bring together visual and sound elements, perhaps in a comfortable setting, with refreshments, companions, and so on, these things dramatically enhance each other. There’s so much power in bringing multiple elements together. Libraries provide a place where this can happen.
Can you provide an illustration of how bringing multiple elements together might play out in the context of library and information services?
Let’s say you’ve got library patrons who are trying to find a job. That has implications for career choices, places to live, lifestyle, and the changing nature of labor. Right now, the task of finding and bringing all that together is daunting. If the setting in which people have to do it is not pleasant, it becomes an even more painful process. Technology makes trillions of pieces of information, art, literature, music, and other resources available to us. But you can’t do anything with trillions of pieces of information, art, or data—you’ve got to be able to find and use the item you need.
There’s tremendous potential for making this much easier for people, not just technically, but emotionally. Libraries can be pivotal in providing environments and tools that allow people to more easily pull together what they need, in pleasant settings where they can combine, integrate, and share them with others. That’s the vision I pursue in my role as a METRO board member. I have great respect for the members of METRO’s board and staff, and share their commitment to helping the libraries and information centers in the New York metropolitan area to make sure the people of our area are well served.