Snapshot Profile: Howard Silver
By Katharine Dunn, Dean's Editorial Fellow
In his Literature of Science and Technology (LIS 484) class, GSLIS adjunct professor Howard Silver '07DA helps students learn about what's in store for them in the academic science libraries of the future. Silver, the co-head of the engineering and science libraries at MIT, previously worked as a librarian at Tufts and at Hahnemann University in Philadelphia. He has a master's in zoology from Queensland University in Australia, where he studied sea cucumbers before switching to library science about 25 years ago.
What are some of the changes you've noticed about how people use the library, in your eight years at MIT?
If you look at the total package of resources and services, more people [than ever before] are using the library, and people are using the library more than they used to. If your metrics are based on physical collections and gate count, circulation, in-house shelving, and reference activity — the traditional cornerstones — all of those are having a steady decline. But those are counterbalanced by skyrocketing use of our e-resources and Web-based transactional services.
There are a couple of ways of looking at the reference question. One is that people need help, and we're experts there to serve them. A question can also indicate a failed service model. In other words, if you've made something too hard for people to use on their own, they'll need your help. If you simplify the service, they won't have to ask a question. When they can get to an article and hit a button and print it, as opposed to trying to find it in our labyrinth of a basement, you've lost the question, but that's a good reduction. Some of the decline in reference is that people are getting what they need.
What are some of the skills that a science librarian needs?
Discipline knowledge matters, and certainly comfort with the disciplines. Not everybody who works at MIT has an academic science background; about half of our professional staff do. The other part is understanding the culture of the community. If you work in the science and technology/biomedical areas, your communication style tends to be very brief, succinct, less formal, and fast.
What are some of the big trends in science librarianship?
It's a tremendously exciting time in terms of what we're doing in libraries. When I started at Hahnemann University, we were one of the very first academic libraries in the country to offer CD- ROM databases to the public. That was 1986-87. It was a technological shift that seems quaint now, but it's not to be underestimated because it marks a time when we began giving people unlimited, unfettered access to electronic content. Until that time, their choices were either to work with a librarian or wrestle with print indexes. You can imagine the difference.
Computers themselves were fairly new. So for a lot of people, their first significant experience with a keyboard and working with a computer was working with these tools. A lot of handholding and support was necessary. They'd be stepping through a database, they'd run through a search, they'd get their results, they'd have a list of abstracts there, and they were just thrilled. And then they'd turn to you and say, "So what key do I hit in order to print out the article?" And you'd look at them and say, "Well that's a few years off."
It took less than 10 years. At the time, if you had asked me, I'd have said it would be 20-30. To see that happen in my professional career is really just a phenomenal change. It's a privilege to live through this phase. But it's no less exciting now. Whenever you enter the game, there's going to be equally dramatic changes in the way people interact with information.
If in that era the request was, "I want to press the button and print out the article," what is it we want now?
In the near-term, people have a lot of information, and they need help managing it. So we're helping people organize personal content that rivals a small library collection. And it's not a trivial thing.
Is that something you do at MIT?
We're getting started.
Why didn't you pursue science?
The honest answer is that I wasn't good enough for that line of work. It takes a certain set of abilities to be a good scientist. I had some of them, but I didn't have many of the qualities that you really need. When I was thinking about transition, I realized one of the qualities I had was that I liked to share information; I did it naturally. I'd find articles and think someone would like this, and I'd say, "Did you see that?" I have the utmost respect for the people who are the really good scientists and engineers. But it's a very worthy thing to provide a support system that allows them to be productive and useful.
Are there things you miss about the way librarianship was when you started?
My initial response is no. I think that we are more relevant now to the academic enterprise than we've ever been before, and that doesn't diminish the value that we had 25 years ago. I believe we touch more people, and we allow them to be more productive. The thing I'm nostalgic about is the passing of the traditional reference service, of having people come up to you and ask questions, and giving them answers. People came to you with a problem, you knew how to answer it, you helped them, they were generally gracious and thankful and they showed it. I miss that for selfish reasons. It was a highly rewarding activity.