Frontier Librarians: Information Professionals in the Digital World

Taken in 1976, this photo illustrates a librarian filing computer tapes in the LA public library's computer facility. Image from UCLA's Digital Library's LA Times Photograph collection.

Yesterday, I waxed poetic about the role libraries have played in my life, though I knew so little about what librarians actually did.  In much the same way, I think most of my patrons don’t know what I do, either.  In fact, my family and friends don’t really know what I do.  When it comes right down to it, when I got into library school, even I wasn’t entirely sure what a librarian did. The answer to that, as I said, is that we actually do a lot of different things, most of which the average person would probably not associate with librarians. In any case, this whole train of thought started with a friend asking me how being a librarian has changed since the Internet, and I intend to answer that now.

First, there’s a lot more information out there these days, and it’s a lot easier for people to get direct access to it.  This is great in a lot of ways – now anyone can walk in to their public library and hop on the Internet to find pretty much anything they’re interested in.  Of course, there are still some people who don’t have Internet access, and not everyone has the digital literacy skills to navigate the web even if they do have access, but at least for me as an academic librarian, I can generally assume that my patrons are fully capable of getting on Google and finding what they think they need.  The problem is that what you find on Google is not necessarily what you actually need.  Let’s put it this way: would you want your doctor to decide how to treat your condition based on an article he’d just found on Google?  I don’t think I would, but that’s exactly how a lot of doctors find information and they see absolutely no problem with it.  As someone who’s an expert in this (or at least a young, burgeoning expert), I know how to find it and it’s not that hard for me to teach people how to do it.  The problem is that people are busy, and if they’re really convinced that they already know how to find what they need, they’re not going to come spend even an hour to hear what I’ve got to say.

Compare this to the days when there were computers and networks in the library, but they weren’t yet there for the patrons.  I love talking to librarians who have been in the field for awhile about how searching worked in the 1980s and 90s.  Rather than having to do their best to figure it out themselves, patrons told librarians what they were looking for, and the librarians found it.  For some databases, you paid per search, so you couldn’t just keep adjusting your search strategy until you found what you were looking for – you had to know how to word your search the first time around (I would be ashamed to show these librarians my PubMed search history – I sometimes play around with it and run searches in tons of different ways just to see how little changes give me different results). And compare this to the days before there were computers at all, and when you had a reference question, the librarian had to know which book contained the information you needed.  I know where to find things in the sense that I know which databases or resources would have the information, but I can’t imagine having to know what all the books in my library contained.

Obviously, it would not be the quickest system, having a whole university’s or hospital’s worth of patrons going to the librarians every time they wanted to find something, and then the librarians taking turns on a computer that must have been terribly slow since I doubt they even had dial-up access by then.  Now you can get on Google and find something in the blink of an eye.  Never mind that it may be crap information.  If you want a demonstration of this, Google “Martin Luther King” and take a look at the fourth result down, and tell me you’re not bothered by the fact that something so out-there is the number four hit (my awesome colleague does this at the medical students’ orientation and everyone is always surprised).

This method for judging the usefulness of medical information appears in many medical texts:

usefulness of medical information  =

relevance × validity


Work refers to the amount of time or effort the person had to put in to find the information.  So that means that a really good article that takes a long time to find is as useful to a doctor as a crappy article he or she found really easily.  Or maybe even less useful, if it takes long enough.  Knowing that, my goal as a librarian is to help people learn how to find articles with a higher level of relevance and validity while still expending the minimum effort possible.  Sure, it would great if people would think to consult the librarian every time they had a serious question they needed to answer, but I know that’s not going to happen, and frankly, I wouldn’t have enough time to answer all those questions anyway.  What seems most logical to me is teaching people how to use tools well so they will hopefully know what to do when I’m not there to help them. In that sense, I don’t think my job is that different from the librarians of the pre-Internet era – they too were trying to teach people how to connect with knowledge.  A big difference now, though, is it’s a harder sell to people whose information seeking skills are barely passable, yet who think of themselves as being perfectly awesome researchers because they don’t even realize all the stuff that’s out there that they’re missing.

It’s a daunting task, but luckily, along with the challenges of the Internet come the tools by which we can also reach people.  I can’t be with a patron at 3 am when they’re writing their paper, but the video tutorial I make or the web page I write or the research guides I post can be.  I can’t put up paper announcements that are going to be seen by every person who might be interested in a class I’m offering, but Tweeting, blogging, Facebooking, and emailing that info will reach a lot more people than signs ever could.  People that I could never possibly get an appointment with will usually at least answer my emails. I guess, then, it all kind of evens out.  The technology makes our job more challenging, but it gives us the tools to meet that challenge.  It throws up roadblocks, but gives us new shortcuts to go the other way around.

I could say something about the democratization of information thanks to the Internet, but I think that’s a discussion for another day.

Librarians in the Internet Age, or a Librarian’s Love Affair With Knowledge

I think a lot of people still think this is what a librarian is. (Image is a still from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I think this constitutes fair use, but if someone feels differently, please let me know.)

A friend of mine recently asked me how I thought libraries and librarianship had changed since the advent of the internet, and suggested I answer on the blog.  It seemed like a good idea, as I hadn’t written here in a long time, having gotten very busy at work.  Thus, tonight, I will address some sort of theoretical, romantic notions of that idea.  Tomorrow, I’ll get more detailed about what the shift from print to digital has meant for libraries and librarians.

Of course, I should preface this by saying that I speak as someone who has only worked in libraries for the last two years, so my only means of comparison is what I observed of libraries as a patron in the pre-Internet age.  As any librarian knows, patrons don’t necessarily have the best sense of what goes on in the library.  I can’t recall a conversation with a patron since I started working at the library that doesn’t find them at some point uttering the phrase “wow, I had no idea the library/librarians do/know this awesome thing!” or something to that effect.  It makes me wonder what I didn’t realize about libraries back in the day.

Some of my favorite memories of libraries come from my youth in small town Texas. My mom, who is the daughter of a librarian and a huge proponent of education, always encouraged my brother and me to learn (not that I needed much encouragement).  I loved the public library and just couldn’t get enough.  In elementary school, I liked to check out books about movie special effects, paranormal activity (like ESP, the Loch Ness monster, and ghosts), and fiction that involved kids having adventures (things like the Boxcar Kids, and Cam Jansen, a series about a girl with a photographic memory who solved crimes).  I loved the card catalog, and I dreamed of eventually reading ever book in the library.  In the summer, the library had little events for the kids, with visiting guests like rodeo clowns and small-time local political officials. The one I remember best was when some local “show” dogs came – these were dogs who competed in Westmintster-style dog show, but at just the really local, small level.  One of them, an enormous mastiff, loudly farted as its imposing female owner talked about the breed.  He looked relieved, but his owner slapped his side and scolded, “Brutus!  I told you not to do that!”  I remember this as distinctly as if it happened yesterday.

The thing about it is, I don’t remember any librarians.  I’m sure they must have been the ones behind the scenes setting up the programming and contacting the dog owners who would be coming to talk, among other things.  Mostly what I thought of them doing, though, was telling people where to find a book, shushing people, or using that cool rotating date stamp to let me know when my books were due.  I’m sure they must have done more than that.  As a librarian now, I know I do more than that…yet I think that many of my patrons probably still think of me that way.

People often associate libraries with books, but what they ought to associate them with is knowledge.  That’s why it’s the perfect job for me – at the heart of it, I have an absolute love affair with knowledge.  I think most women my age dream of getting married and having kids, but I’m dreaming of somehow conquering as much as I can of the known world through reading, or better yet, personal experience.  I’d rather spend my Friday night with a good book than on a date.  I am envious not of people who have achieved great material or romantic success, but those who have incredible memories or who have mastered feats of intellect.

These days, of course, that’s not really possible.  Once upon a time, it might have been feasbible for a person to truly master a field of study, but now that knowledge is so broad, it’s more about knowing how to connect with information.  There’s just no way one could know everything there is to know about the practice of medicine, for example.  A 2004 study indicated that a primary care physician would need to spend almost 630 hours a month, or 20 hours a day, just to read abstracts of or skim relevant articles, much less read the whole thing.  Now, almost ten years later, I’m sure the figures would be even more extreme.  What you need, then, is someone who knows how to get you just to the information you need, without having to sift through the detritus.  You need someone not only with the know-how to get you to those pearls, but also the charisma and people-skills to teach you the skills you need to do this for yourself.  You need a librarian.

Of course, this is merely one example of the ways that librarians help connect people with knowledge. Those are instructional librarians, but there are so many specialties.  Cataloging librarians understand the ways people seek out information and create systems and data that help people get to what they’re looking for no matter what convoluted route they use to seek it.  Data librarians are the gatekeepers to knowledge by the numbers, so to speak, sort of priests and priestesses of knowledge who keep the eternal flame lit by keeping the data alive, accessible, and useful.  Collection development librarians are the selectors who decide what information is important and what is not (or at least what is so essential that we cannot, even in times of slashed budgets not buy it).  And this only scratches the surface – there’s so much more we librarians do.

So, to sum it up, theoretically speaking: in the Internet age, information is ubiquitous, as are librarians.  Wherever knowledge lives, one of us is there to help you find it, even if it’s hidden in a corner.  I’ve heard some buzz on Twitter today about librarian as engineer (though I haven’t read any details), but I think of librarians as tour guides into the secret worlds where knowledge lives.

It appears my verbose fiction-writer side has come out tonight, but I’ll continue this tomorrow in part two, where I’ll address more practically the ways that librarianship has changed since the advent of the Internet.

Quick Sips: Quarante-Quatre (Forty-Four)


When I was living in France, I spent a weekend with some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  They were the parents of an acquaintance back in Dallas, who had given me their number before I left and said I should call them if I got down to the south of France.  I figured it was one of those things you do to be polite, and I’d probably never end up actually meeting them, but when I did find myself in the south of France, I gave them a call.  I figured at the most maybe we would meet for coffee or something, but before I knew it, my friend Shannon and I were on the bus to their tiny town (Vacqueyras) in one of my favorite wine regions of France (the Rhone).  We spent the entire weekend at their beautiful home, enjoying the most generous hospitality I’ve ever ever known.  They threw a party and invited their whole family, and my friend’s little nephews performed for us an adorable French song about a puppy and a kitty (words I didn’t know in French until I heard that song).  They took us to their neighbor’s incredible wine store because they knew I was into wine.  They took us to sight-see in some very cool nearby villages.  They even drove us several hours each way to spend a day at the austere and windy beaches at Aigues-Mortes, which translates to “dead waters,” a part of France where they have rice paddies and wild flamingos.  Seriously, nicest people ever.  But I digress.

Our hosts, Aldo and Evelyne, were excellent cooks and had so much good wine around you wouldn’t believe it.  But of the things I drank and ate there, one of the most interesting was a liqueur they called quarante-quatre, which translates to forty-four.  It was thus named because it was made by taking eau-de-vie and aging it for 44 days with an orange, 44 cloves, 44 cubes of sugar, and 44 coffee beans.  And let me tell you, that stuff was strong, but incredibly tasty.

After having great success with making my own limoncello the last couple summers, I wanted to try to make some quarante-quatre for the fall.  Even though I still remembered Evelyne’s easy recipe, I looked up some recipes online to see if there were things people were substituting for eau-de-vie, which is a catch-all term for any fermented fruit brandy.  There are lots of different eaux-de-vie, including Calvados (apple brandy) and Poire Williams (pear brandy).  They’re common in France, but harder to find and often pretty expensive here in the US.  I suspected the one in this recipe was a grape eau-de-vie.  It had a mild enough flavor that I thought I could substitute vodka for it, which many people had done in their recipes, but I also noticed that none of them followed the exact recipe Evelyne had given me.  Some excluded the sugar cubes, some excluded the coffee beans, some called for different quantities of things, and some suggested aging it for a different period of time.

I wanted to go with what I’d been told, so that’s exactly what I did, and it ended up being incredibly good.  If anything, it’s better even than I remember.  I made a double batch because I wanted to give some to a few people for Christmas, and it’s really the perfect flavor for holiday gift-giving.  All of the different flavors alone seem just right for winter, but together, they’re like the antidote to cold weather in a glass.  It’s spicy, orange-y, and a little earthy from the coffee, and it’s so rich that I don’t think you’d ever guess that it started its life as vodka.

If you’re going to drink it straight, serve it very cold.  I keep mine in the fridge, but I think you could probably even keep it in the freezer.  If it’s warm, it tastes very strong and not as pleasant, but it’s one of those things that still manages to warm you up even when you drink it cold. I also tried it in eggnog, which turned out to be incredibly good.  I just unceremoniously dumped mine into the eggnog-in-a-carton from the grocery store, but if you actually made homemade eggnog and used quarante-quatre in it, I think it would be incredible.  You could probably cut back on the sugar in the eggnog if you were making it by hand, as the quarante-quatre has some sweetness in it.  This would also be good as a substitute in any drink that calls for an orange liqueur (Grand Marnier, Gran Gala, etc) or a coffee/espresso liqueur.  Perhaps a spiced-orange espresso martini, or quarante-quatre hot chocolate with whipped cream and dark chocolate curls?

A note on using vodka to make infused liqueurs: you don’t want to use something expensive for this – that’s a waste of good vodka.  On the other hand, you don’t want to use some cheap, nasty stuff that’s going to impart a weird flavor, either.  When I do infusions, I generally use Smirnoff.  It’s a nice balance of price and quality for a project like this.

makes about 750 mL

1 750 mL bottle of vodka
1 medium orange
44 whole cloves
44 sugar cubes
44 whole Italian or other dark roast coffee beans

  1. Clean a very large, wide-mouthed jar of at least 1 L capacity.  It’s okay if there’s going to be some space at the top of your jar above the level of the liquid.  Make sure the mouth is nice and wide – you need to be able to fit the orange in there whole.  You probably won’t want to keep your quarante-quatre in the jar once it’s all done, so you might want to save the vodka bottle to reuse it later.
  2. Stick the 44 cloves into the orange and place the orange inside the jar.  If it’s a tight fit, some of your cloves might fall off, but don’t worry about it.  Just make sure they all get into the jar.
  3. Place the rest of the ingredients in the jar, cover tightly, and let sit in a cool, dark place for 44 days.  The sugar cubes will take several days or even weeks to dissolve.  Some of the cloves might fall out of the oranges, but that’s not a problem either.
  4. After 44 days, shake the jar well.  Remove the orange and pour the liquid through a strainer into a bottle, discarding the coffee beans and cloves.  Enjoy and toast with your friends as the French do, saying “santé” (to your health).

The Researcher’s Guide to Making the Most of Your Librarian

I bet this is what you think of when you hear "librarian," but the 21st century academic librarian does a lot more than shelving books, and is one of the most valuable research tools out there. Image attribution: David Rees (1943—), Environmental Protection Agency derivative work: Andrzej 22 Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The way I see it, if you’re a researcher, your librarian should be your best friend.  Maybe I’m biased, but I think that, no matter what field you’re in, you are doing yourself a favor if you get to know your librarian. If you don’t know who your librarian is, or (gasp) don’t even know where you library is, read on to find out how to make your life and research easier, and then stop what you’re doing and meet your librarian!

When I meet researchers who haven’t worked much with librarians, I can tell what they’re thinking.  They consider me a person to call when their library card isn’t working, their electronic access to a journal article is down, or they want to contest a fine.  I know that’s kind of what most people think librarians do, but in fact, I have nothing to do with any of that and I couldn’t actually answer any of those questions for you (although I could point you in the right direction).  To be honest, I went into library school kind of thinking that this was what librarians did, too.  I remember worrying that I might have to memorize the Dewey Decimal System (which, by the way, I also know very little about, as it’s not used in most academic or medical libraries).

As it turns out, librarians are experts in a lot more than just how books and journals are arranged.  I didn’t end up learning the Dewey Decimal System in library school, but I did learn some of the librarian-y things you’d expect, like how to conduct a reference interview, about information-seeking behaviors, how to do information literacy instruction, and the like.  However, I also learned about database construction, user experience design and information architecture, grant-writing, metadata standards, data curation and management, and a ton of other things that make librarians invaluable assets to researchers.

In my job, I work with researchers in many capacities – assisting with search strategies for literature searches, helping them figure out how to use citation management software like EndNote and Mendeley, and yes, sometimes helping people when electronic access to journals breaks.  I teach people how to find information more easily, or to put it another way, where to look for what you want (hint: it’s not Google) and how to word your search so that the results will be what you’re looking for and you won’t have to sift through 20 pages of crap articles to get to the one you want. Sometimes researchers come to me after spending several frustrating hours trying unsuccessfully to find something, and I can find it in under ten minutes.  Searching is a skill, and it’s not one that most people learn, unless they go to library school or get a librarian to teach it to them.  Of course there’s a lot I’m also doing behind the scenes, like selecting resources to purchase and fighting for open access and against things like the Research Works Act.

One of the things that I find most interesting in my interactions with researchers is helping them with their data.  I think a lot of researchers still don’t realize that the library (at least this is true at UCLA) is equipped to help with NSF data management plans, data management, storage and preservation of data, and the like.  Sometimes I sit down with researchers and look at their data sets and point out things they could do or change to make that data set not only useful for other people, assuming the data will be shared, but also things that will make it easier for the original researcher.  If you’re a researcher working with any sort of data, from a simple little Excel spreadsheet up to some massive data set, there are probably things that you could be doing better with it, and a librarian could help you with that.

Now that you know about some of the hidden talents of the librarian and you want to get yours working for you, here’s how to do it:

  • Find out who your librarian is.  In many academic libraries, librarians are assigned liaison areas, so figure out who covers your area.  This person will be knowledgeable about the kinds of resources people in your field use, and will almost certainly be able to teach you some tricks for using those resources more efficiently.
  • Meet or email your librarian.  Many librarians are introverts, so they’re not necessarily the kind of people who are going to be showing up and being vocal all over the place, but most of the librarians I know love hearing from patrons and are happy to help.
  • Let your librarian know what you’re researching and what you’re interested in. I certainly can’t speak for all librarians, but I remember the patrons I help, and when I run across an article or resource that seems relevant to their search, I email it to them.
  • Ask your librarian about data services on your campus.  Here at UCLA, we have tons of cool services that can make people’s research lives so much easier, but a lot of researchers have no idea any of this stuff exists, much less how to use it.
  • When you’re going to start a new research project, consult your librarian early in the process.  Chances are good that he or she will have some ideas that will save you lots of time and trouble.  The help a librarian can give you will leave you more time to work on your actual research rather than doing something like formatting citations, and wouldn’t you rather be working on your research?

So there you go.  Well, what are you still doing here?  Go talk to your librarian! 🙂