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.