June 23, 2008

The librarian is dead. Long live the librarian.

Some of my most vivid memories from my childhood involve spending summer mornings in the library, discovering new books and great VHS tapes along with Brenda, my neighborhood librarian. Brenda would recommend new titles and would help me explore the world of information that was on the shelves in front of me.

These days, that same information is on my screen, available at the click of a mouse button. And Brenda is nowhere to be seen.

(For the record, I’m mainly referring to public libraries here, but these thoughts also apply to academic libraries to a certain extent. I’m not sure how it applies to private and corporate libraries, as I’m not too familiar with that area.)

It’s easy to call out the death of the librarian. Google makes searching for information simple, Wikipedia provides an excellent starting point—and I emphasize starting point, because too many people use it as an authoritative source rather than a place to begin inquiry—for research, and getting an answer to a question is as easy as writing 140 characters on Twitter.

If I can get good, extensive, and personalized information in a few seconds using the internet, what good is the librarian?

Aside from being the keeper of the physical institution of the library (more on that later this week), the librarian’s other roles of conducting reference interviews (to help navigate information) and sorting through collections (to help manage information) seem to be waning. Collaborative tools on the web are taking their place, with social recommendation engines and direct access to a large group of people doing most of the work that was formerly in the domain of the librarian.

So why, in my eyes, is the librarian still one of the most important players in society? The answer is simple: capacity.

If the in-person reference interview is losing relevance because of the ubiquity of online resources, it is the librarian—a person uniquely trained in sifting through data deluge—that is best poised to be at the center of the online recommendation resources.

Librarians, after all, have a lot going for them:

  • They are trained in critical analysis of good information.
  • They have experience in filtering and searching information.
  • They are employed (read: paid) to work with information.
  • They have access to more information than simply what’s online.
  • They know how to work with people and ideas at the same time.

If anyone is ready to embrace the online world and use social tools to help others access information, it’s librarians. A librarian, by tagging and annotating online, print, and other resources, can create a massive wealth of information that can then be sorted dynamically for many uses. The reference interview, which used to benefit one person, can now be reshifted to be a reference repository where data can easily be sorted, sifted, filtered, and used for anyone’s benefit.

What libraries need to do now is make it easier for librarians to share their work on the wider web and not just hide them behind a library login. Instead of publishing bookmarks with cool reading lists for this month” or putting big signs on their shelves indicating good reads, libraries should instead feature librarian online resource lists as their primary offering.

One day, when people are looking for help finding and filtering information, they will turn to a librarian—whether that librarian is using Twitter or Yahoo! Answers or the library website—because of the breadth of the resources at their disposal and the depth of their experience in processing those resources.

After all, everyone needs their own personal Brenda to help you navigate the content-rich and information-dense world. The only difference is that now she’s on your screen and available at the click of a mouse.