Monday, May 16, 2011

What does a librarian do?

Seth's Blog: The future of the library

I like Seth Godin, but...

Before Gutenberg, a book cost about as much as a small house. As a result, only kings and bishops could afford to own a book of their own.
No, neither kings nor bishops owned books. Why would a king want one? He couldn't read. It's only many decades after Gutenberg that the concept of "public literacy" gained any meaning at all.

Industrialists (particularly Andrew Carnegie) funded the modern American library. The idea was that in a pre-electronic media age, the working man needed to be both entertained and slightly educated.
Slightly educated? Slightly educated? Carnegie weeps.

Your kids need a place with shared encyclopedias and plenty of fun books...
Is that what you think a library is for? Carnegie wails.

Which was all great, until now. Want to watch a movie? Netflix is a better librarian...
You were talking about libraries, not movies. Carnegie gnashes his teeth.

Wikipedia and the huge databanks of information have basically eliminated the library as the best resource for anyone doing amateur research (grade school, middle school, even undergrad).
Oh, so that's where you were going. Why didn't you say so to begin with?

In any case, it's not so. Wikipedia didn't eliminate the library: Its creators simply responded to a need for a skill that students were no longer being taught. The ready reference librarians never went away: They are still there.

The library is still "the best resource for anyone doing amateur research". It's just that few people really do that any more, absent some classroom requirement. For decades, schools have taught and other media (okay, I'll say it: "television") have reinforced that only intellectuals read. Alphabetical order? Bibliographic citation? Scientific method? These are for elitists only, of no practical value to such as us. Anything worth knowing can be understood in ten words or less. (Never mind that that sentence is eleven words.)

They need a librarian more than ever (to figure out creative ways to find and use data). They need a library not at all.
The librarian was always the most valuable asset to be found in a library. Without her (so sue me: the vast majority of them are women), it's just a box of books. Even if the patron doesn't deal with the librarian personally, he benefits from her judgement in the criteria by which the collection is selected and maintained. She's an editor who culls the flawed and nonsensical, and recommends the more reliable sources, most likely to actually enrich your experience. (This is a function with which Wikipedia still struggles.)

Librarians that are arguing and lobbying for clever ebook lending solutions are completely missing the point.
Oh, really, Seth, that's a controversy you don't want to even brush up against in an article as short as this one. Publishers have always distrusted libraries (every book borrowed is a book not sold, they say, and from whence will the next book come if the previous book isn't profitable?), and ebooks embody everything they dislike about libraries. The librarian's goal remains unchanged: To get the information into the hands of the person who wants it. Librarians have no particular desire for "clever ebook lending solutions", they just want the damn books and have to compromise with the publishers who insist that access to those books be limited.

But, as I said, this is a discussion for another day.

The next library is...
The library today already is all of the things you want "the next library" to be.

But I think the next time you utter the phrase "dead paper", some librarian is going to grab the nearest, most bricklike stack of "dead paper" and throw it at you.


Pretentious Wombat said...

*clap, clap, clap* albeit not too loudly if we're in a library.

Crosby Kenyon said...

Technology is great but not infallible. I love the access to all that information, but there's a lot of chaff. Sometimes the internet is right on for me. The librarian, however, often gets me to the specific sooner--not always, but I've had an interpersonal relationship with a human being who won't suddenly lose the connection.

Daniel said...

A good librarian anticipates your needs better than any tracking cookie ever can.