Friday, May 20, 2011

What is up with libraries these days? Part One

I know many of you are not librarians by trade, so you may not be aware of the shake ups happening in our little world these days. I would say it all started back when Al Gore invented the internet. There were people who said, "Wait. That's not true. I need to go to my local library and ask one of those librarians for the real story." And then there were those people who said, "Wait. What's the internet? I need to go to my library and see if I can check that out with my library card." It was this moment in time (or one very near by) that set libraries off on a trajectory into the information age.

Just one second person who coined the "information age" phrase. We're trying to say that there was no information before Al Gore invented the internet? Because I was under the impression that humans have been dealing with information ever since they figured out they could communicate with each other.

Librarians of the 21st century (I claim that title when the hit action-packed, sci-fi movie is released) are faced with an overwhelming task: making all ideas available to all people. Back when printed books were the status quo and we didn't have to worry about all this digital nonsense, it was a bit easier to say with some confidence that, after a diligent search, all of the information on X subject had been found with perhaps a few exceptions that may have been located in musty archives inaccessible to anyone. Now, there is no confidence that any one person could ever find ALL the information available on a topic. As soon as you finish your first go around, dozens of articles, websites, and self-published books could have been released. The idea of a comprehensive literature review should terrify the average person.

But there, you see, librarians are not just "the average person." We have knowledge, we have advanced degrees, we have super secret special powers that allow us to fly... Wait. That last one is a bit too far. But we are able to tap into the collective knowledge of our current and past civilizations to find you the best response for your most pressing questions. Yes, we are awesome. And yes, there is a difference between the library clerk who give you a blank stare when you ask a complicated question and the professional librarian just dying to have someone ask them something that will require more than pointing towards the restroom.

A fellow book lover recently passed along this blog post by a librarian that often has very strong opinions (I would share this persons name, but I only know this person's screen name: the.effing.librarian). Be warned that there is some language both in the post and in the comments. While I think that librarians, generally speaking, have a fuller vocabulary than the rest of the world (we do have unlimited access to all of those dictionaries after all), I think the language displays the passion that we all feel towards this debate. The.effing.librarians was responding to Seth Godin's recent post that has sparked a huge debate about the future of libraries and the librarians who work in them.

So what's the big deal, you may ask? Just move on, librarians, get with the times, you may say. For the most part, libraries lead the way of getting with the times. They used computers regularly before most business recognized their value. They jumped on the Internet bandwagon as soon as possible, sharing and collaborating and making sure that patrons really did have access to everything. Much to the chagrin of the bun-bedecked librarian, we are hip (but perhaps I just reduced our inherent hipness by using the very word). We have ipads and kindles and instant stream movies, music, and audio books. We are digitizing and archiving and programming and whatever. And here is another super power I forgot to address: we do this all with almost no money. I know, right? We're amazing.

But with this push towards all things digital, we forget that first tenant that all librarians swear to upon graduation (it's sort of like doctors making the Hippocratic oath, only not at all): I, (state your name), do so solemnly swear that I will neither discriminate user or resource and will provide access to all people to all information.

Get that? We are not allowed to discriminate against users (which, by the way, is pretty much an American thing. The.effing.librarian makes an excellent point by stating that many countries absolutely DO NOT have anything that even resembles US public libraries open and free to all). We also CANNOT discriminate against our resources. For many decades, that has meant primarily the content of the resources. As librarians, we leave our personal preferences at the door and try to offer our patrons the range of information on all topics. We are not called to decide HOW people think; we are just trying to get them to think. More recently, this discrimination has been more about carrier type (that's an inside joke for catalogers facing the rather catastrophic appearance of RDA which has nothing do do with recommended daily allowances, thank you Google). What does discrimination against carrier type mean? It means administrators and some narrow minded librarians are throwing away their books. Gone. No print. It's obsolete. Everything is on the Internet.

No. False. Much to almost everyone's surprise everything is NOT on the Internet. In fact, most things are not on the Internet. Like all of those books that you just threw away. Google hasn't digitized those yet. And all of those archives that you just tossed. They don't exist any where. And all of those photos and newspaper articles and letters and magazines. Those aren't there either. You may think that everything is on the Internet because (insert your favorite search engine here) just dumped 7 billion websites onto your computer screen when you searched for "economic decline," but looks can be deceiving. I recently saw this rather revealing post On the dangers of personalization. So now we must also consider that search engines are hiding results from you based on your search history in addition to not actually being able to search the entirety of human knowledge in the first place. Google never earned a master's degree in library science. It took no oath not to discriminate against users or resources. And when was the last time Netflix "genres" actually suggested something you might want to watch (sorry, that's another soap box).

I don't know, people. It's a sad world in which we live. As I sit here typing this, I continue to have the same nagging thought: Who cares? Who cares that people in the United States can't think critically. Who cares that they aren't getting the best answer to their question as long as they get some answer. Who cares that entire sections of our culture and past are being thrown into the dumpsters. The idea of "good enough" permeates our culture from people eating at restaurants that care more about being fast than serving food that tastes good to education systems interested only in the results of a standardized test to corporations that are only interested in the bottom line and ignore the quality of their product.

Well, let's rise above librarians. Let's care. Let's fight this fight until there is no more fight to fight. Let's join together to work with the e-publishers that want to tell us how to be a library. We need to tell them! (If you don't know about that, go sign this petition and go read Andy Woodworth's blog post on why he started the petition). We are Librarians, a part of a long history of subversion, controversy, rebellion, and knowledge. If knowledge is power, we have the power of entire civilizations at our finger tips. Let's use it!

Part Two will more than likely be on why most librarians won't actually step up to the plate and why I hope that I will be proven wrong.


  1. Nice post. I avoided the links and scrolled past the second half once it was obvious I wasn't going to understand catalog cracks and the like. But I do appreciate a librarian who knows her stuff, yes I do. And it's quite apropos that Google isn't hip (I also appreciated the use of that word) on RDA when all information is at our fingertips, so to speak. Lastly, I'd like to point out that the fingers in the yellow pages symbol are walking through the phone book, not on a keyboard. I'm sure you can use that in part II. :)

  2. Joy,
    You have hit a nerve. You should go national with this, seriously. Librarians in this country need a voice like yours. You are a great writer and a terrific speaker. Great post. N.