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.

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