Picture a librarian. Is this person a woman? Gray hair in a prim outfit? Stern?
Now imagine this librarian at work. Are they checking out books? Shushing children? Recommending old fiction because they are in love with Mr. Darcy?
You probably can’t imagine needing a librarian anymore with that magic device in your pocket that connects to our human collective knowledge, and the sphinx known as Google that answers all questions—sans the riddles.
In fact, even regular library patrons rarely speak to a librarian, instead using the online catalog to order books and pick them up at leisure, being checked out by a clerk (no, the person at the desk scanning your books is rarely a librarian) and returning them in the convenient slot outside the building.
First let’s talk about the language. Librarians are part of the Information Science field, and it is the single most important field to be aware of in our world that has a glut of information that our computers CANNOT yet process, organize, and make available to those who need it most, now. Search engines are getting better everyday, algorithms are being written, but the human mind still has no equal to understanding relevance in data.
Information scientists are publishing papers on a range of topics because they find connections in seemingly disparate sets of data. These connections lead to original theories and discoveries that would otherwise be lost in the ever increasing mound of research. You can read more about this information overload in my interview post, The Half-Life of Facts.
Second, you should know that librarians aren’t just in your local community library doing story time. Businesses, law firms, research centers, all need someone to help make sure their data is collected and organized in a way so their workers can get access to the information they need quickly and efficiently. The IT person isn’t trained for that. The secretary isn’t trained for that. A librarian is.
Librarians have master’s degrees in Information Science—GASP! Yes, they are more than just lovers of books (although that is usually the initial drive to get into the field). Besides learning about the latest technology, the archival skills to keep the original sources intact is a huge importance. It’s great that the film of Goddard’s test flights for rocketry have been put on YouTube, but the original footage MUST be preserved! Why? Who knows what is coming next in technology? Will we be always able to access the formats of our current computers? Right now you can’t access old webpages because of outdated technology. To keep this vast collection of knowledge, the genuine articles must be preserved by trained archivists—AKA: librarians.
Librarians are keepers of freedom. In America, we hold our freedoms quite highly, but there is constant pressure to restrict access to what random groups considered wrong, corrupting, or evil. Most people can agree that burning all books but those approved by Hitler altered German society to create a state of hate. But what about banning The Wizard of Oz because it depicts women in strong leadership roles? Where is your line? Librarians keep access to all books, believing everyone has a right to information and to our history. There’s even a banned book week.
When the Patriot Act was passed back in 2001, there was a part that allowed the government to search through the library’s files on patron’s book choices. To protest this, my local libraries did the only thing they could—stopped keeping the files. Now no one can see (including me) what books I have been reading. It is only in light of the recent NSA scandal that the rest of the nation has woken up to this freedom of privacy issue that librarians protested from the very beginning.
Librarians give you access. You may believe you can get your hands on any information if you look hard enough, but that is not true. My husband is a geneticist and talked to me about how his graduate students in the lab were struggling to find relevant published articles for research. They all needed the university librarians’ help. First of all, the students didn’t even know how to begin. The librarians found out their topics and could point them to the correct science journals (there are many, many, specialized journals you’ve never heard of). And then, most importantly, they granted the students’ access.
Many scholarly journals have no public access. This means they will not appear on any searches, so you have to know they exist, and then get permission to read them. Whether you agree or not with this practice, librarians are the gatekeepers to higher education research.
Media Literacy is sorely needed right now, and librarians are the ones to teach it. It may seem normal that our little ones aren’t good at finding the right search words, but older students have poor research skills as well. Mostly this is because true research is not about looking up information and spitting it back out “in your own words.” Instead, research is finding various kinds of information and drawing connections to form original theories and creating something entirely new with it. How do you figure out how to do this? Hopefully from your school librarian at the early stages of learning. Unfortunately, this is a much under-appreciated position in schools today.
There was an interesting exercise by Karen Gross, President of Southern Vermont college, with high school students. She concluded, “Information is not the problem—it is how to think about the information that counts.”
But let’s go back to your local, friendly, community librarian. What the heck do they do everyday? And why do you care? Just watch your child try to do a web research on any topic and be aghast at how terrible they are at coming up with relevant (and correctly spelled!) search words or phrases, going beyond the first one or two hits they find, actually looking at the whole page they are given, how easily they accept what is on any website, etc. It’s enough to make you want to bang your head against the wall. That’s how librarians feel about most people making life decisions based on poor research. All you have to do is ask for help! But you don’t know you need help.
When I asked Allison, a librarian friend, what is the most important and under-appreciated aspect of her job, she said, “Three words: The reference interview.” This is when you go ask a librarian in real time (in-person or online) for help with a search. A good, trained librarian can then ask you the right questions to tease out exactly what you need, which is often not what you originally asked. A machine can’t (yet) understand shyness, embarrassment, common misconceptions, low-education issues, and anything else that gets in the way of asking the right questions. But with a simple chat, a librarian can help you find what you truly are looking for. Use them!
My son had a similar comment about this post, “I want to talk to a nice, real person about books. Then after awhile, they know me, and can recommend things I wouldn’t have thought to try.” And that’s why I believe (and Neil Gaiman too) that librarians matter!