Saving libraries but not librarians

Posting to NGC4LIB

This was an article in the Los Angeles Times written by a disillusioned librarian who maintains that librarians get little respect, especially today (“California must value librarians; libraries can’t run

She provides numbers showing how budgets and librarians have decreasedin the last few years. The most perceptive point she makes is:

“Still, the idea of shutting down a library is unpalatable to most officials. So they lay off librarians to keep the buildings open, supporting the illusion that libraries can simply run themselves.

On school visits, I ask what students think a librarian does. The response is always the same. “Librarians check out books. They read a lot. They tell people to be quiet.” These misconceptions are held by adults too. When I told a friend that I was embarking on my graduate degree, he asked, “You need a master’s degree in the Dewey Decimal System?”

With that attitude, who cares whether California has any librarians left? Why not replace us with phone trees, self-service checkout machines and volunteers?”

Then another article in reply was published by a fellow at a legal clinic (“Saving libraries but not librarians”, who claims that academic libraries perhaps need traditional libraries and librarians, but that the general public can get by with Google. His opening sums up his argument:

“The digital revolution, while improving society, has gutted many professions. Machines have replaced assembly-line workers, ATMs have replaced bank tellers, Amazon has replaced bookstores and IBM’s Watson may even replace doctors and lawyers. And now, the Internet is replacing librarians.

Or at least it should be.

The digital revolution has made many librarians obsolete. Historically, librarians exclusively provided many services: They organized information, guided others’ research and advised community members. But now, librarians compete with the Internet and Google. Unlike libraries, the Internet’s information is not bound by walls; from blogs and books to journals and laws, the Internet has them all. And Google makes this information easily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.”

My own take on this issue is what others pointed out in the comments to the second article: the second person does not know what a librarian does, and the librarian in the first article pointed out that very few people do know. Even people who use libraries all the time and claim to love them so much, still do not understand what library work is. But the simple fact is that the materials on the web has caused a true revolution in information that librarians are still trying to deal with. Libraries normally enact changes on a schedule akin to geological time, but the web materials change constantly. Google changes its search algorithm about once a day!

The traditional method that libraries have used to deal with new materials has been to fold them in with the same procedures they had used for the old materials, so e.g. when photography came in, libraries altered their current methods to include them; the same with computer files and other newer materials. But our old methods have failed when applying them to materials on the web (primarily not because online materials are harder to catalog–there are just a lot more of them and they change unpredictably without notice, so the record becomes outdated as a consequence).

If the Google-Publisher agreement had been approved, I think we would be taking the issue of the relevance of the library more seriously, but it was rejected and libraries have gained a breathing space of a few years. Still, all of those materials will definitely be available online sooner or later, and libraries will simply have to deal with the situation of 90% of the resources people want are available online at the click of a button.

Someone wrote to me privately about the Amazon Prime program where people can borrow one book a month for $80 a year–plus you can watch movies and get other advantages. Depending on the books and movies you can get, this may be a very popular choice for a lot of people. For those who would choose Amazon Prime, I would bet that many would feel they did not need libraries any longer. And in tough economic times, they may be less agreeable to taxes paying for libraries that they don’t use.

These issues could perhaps be resolved if the public had a better understanding and appreciation of what librarians do, and what new things they could do with updated tools and in a new information environment.

But librarians themselves will have to change first.



One Comment

  1. Anonymous said:

    People are telling you what they see librarians doing. <br /><br />I confess I feel the same way when I walk by the reference desk (&quot;Fort Information&quot;) in my library-and I&#39;m a librarian! Get rid of that desk–put people out on the floor doing things of utility/value/interest to users. If you&#39;re going to do classes, don&#39;t always just do &quot;introduction to this..&quot;

    November 7, 2011

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