Comment to: Death by Irony: How Librarians Killed the Academic Library

Comment to: Death by Irony: How Librarians Killed the Academic Library / Brian T. Sullivan (Chronicle of Higher Education, January 2, 2011)

I guess I’m going to lay myself open because I have a completely different take on this. I am a librarian of some years’ experience as well, and I have seen how electronic resources and the web have pretty much killed off science libraries. In a highly-provocative talk of Peter Murray-Rust (a chemist) (see the video at, he tells the truth: he simply says that for the science, technology and mathematics (STM) fields, academic libraries are almost completely irrelevant.

To continue his line of thinking: the social sciences also need libraries less an less, certainly much less than only 10 years ago. Therefore, why would we believe that the humanities are somehow exempt from this trend? And anyway, is the purpose of libraries aimed primarily at the humanities, or equally for all fields? Already, we are seeing brand new possibilities with many new projects that are completely new and outside all of the traditional publisher/library controls, such as Google’s Ngram Viewer, which is already inspiring a lively debate. I think we all know this is only the first of many such projects.

Fortunately, Mr. Murray-Rust doesn’t simply end there, but goes on to make several suggestions for some of the directions libraries should take. *In theory*, finding useful and reliable information should be easier today than ever before, but this makes a tremendous assumption: that people are much better in their searching skills than any I have witnessed. While somebody may be very good at using their computers to find hotel rooms to book on a specific date, to download a new app for their Iphone, or to look something up in Wikipedia, using that same computer to get enough reliable information to write a paper on the consequences of the fall of communism in Hungary, or to understand the techniques of Raphael’s paintings, or for that matter, to get a decent idea of the performance of the Obama administration for purposes of deciding how to vote, are completely different tasks. People have troubles with those searches.

In the pre-computer days, people also had lots of problems with these same sorts of questions, but back then they would tend to find far too little–or nothing–using the card catalogs and paper indexes, while today they normally find far too much that is irrelevant. In the old days however, people had no choice except to ask a reference librarian for help, or just continue to struggle (as many did), but today with the web, there is always someplace else to go, or what I think many do: choose the easiest route by just giving up and accepting whatever the search engine spits out at them. The number of reference questions is clearly going down according to ARL statistics, and web masters know that people very rarely consult the help pages of a site. They just go someplace else or “Google” it.

I don’t know what the solutions are, and nobody can know without trial and error, but librarians have to get out of the rah-rah! corner and face facts: they are watching their profession fade away. We have lost the sciences, almost lost the social sciences, and the humanities are endangered. I have no doubt that librarian skills are desperately needed today, but in different contexts and in different venues. We must discover what they are.