Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Ask a Librarian: Will There be Librarians in the Future?

In the last few years, there have been no shortage of opinions given on the future of librarians (or lack thereof). Many people seem to believe that with the advent of the internet and the rise of Google, the world's need for librarians is going to dwindle away until, one day, librarians will be looked upon as a quaint profession that outgrew its usefulness, like the milkman, or the ice truck. After all, if all you need to do to find information is go online, type a bit, click a bit more and then soak in the knowledge, what's the use of a library? Especially when its only other use (to give you books) has been replaced by e-readers.

I think the biggest part of this opinion is based on two misguided assumptions: that the internet makes information finding easier, and that librarians are all about books. Let me go through those assumptions one at a time.

First, I admit I'm a tad confused as to why people assume the internet makes their information-finding needs disappear. Well, that's not entirely true--I understand why they think that, but I know why they're wrong, too. When you have a question these days, it's very easy to Google your way to an acceptable answer. Of course, this depends on what your definition of "acceptable" is. If your question was something basic--the birthplace of Bach (Eisenach, Germany), or the state flower of Nevada (sagebrush), then it's a piece of cake. But what if your question is more advanced? How about "what's the most fuel efficient car on the market today?" or even worse, "What car should I buy?" What I'm getting at, is as long as you're dealing with facts, Google is (more or less) on even ground. Once you get into opinions or evaluations of facts, then you're in deep waters, my friend. (For one thing, you've turned your information finding needs over to a company that makes their money off of ads, and who ranks results using a method others try to hack so that their web pages come back higher in your results list--but that's all a topic for another day.) Google can find you plenty of pages about fuel efficient cars, but it can't filter out the reliable from the unreliable.

Get even more difficult: an ideal search for information (like "How did American culture lead to the rise of al-Qaeda?") should return information that is both exclusive (only has results that have to do with your subject) and exhaustive (has all the results that have to do with your subject). Google does an awful job with this. You do a search, and you get back a big ol' pile o' results. Sifting through those results is cumbersome and bewildering. People usually end up giving up and settling for an article or two that they find that are more or less what they were looking for.

Enter librarians.

Did you know we actually took classes on how to best find information online? Some of us did, at least. And we specialize in finding information. Not just any information, either--reliable information. We can look at something, evaluate it, and decide if it's worthwhile or not. We deal in information. Why should the rise of so much more information online mean that the profession that specializes in searching and using that information will disappear? As cars get more complex, do mechanics find themselves unemployed? As more laws get written, do lawyers go out of business?

This ties into the second assumption: that librarians are all about books. As a librarian who does most of his work on the computer and with computers, I obviously have a bone to pick here, but I realize that it's a long-lived stereotype, and that nothing I say here is going to diminish it. The problem is that people who think this clearly haven't been using modern libraries lately. We have ebooks, audiobooks, digital libraries, blogs(!), online catalogs, databases--you name it. Libraries actually do their best to stay ahead of the technology curve and embrace the changes as they come. (Or at least, libraries that want to stay relevant do this.) So the future of libraries and librarians is not as closely tied to the future of the book as some people seem to think.

Bottom line: I think libraries will change, yes. And who knows how those changes will play out--but one thing I feel safe in saying: Librarians aren't going anywhere.

What do you think? (Bonus points if you can name the movie that picture is from, and double bonus points if you can make the connection of what that movie has to do with this post.)


  1. Long live librarians. You write mostly in terms of academic librarians. I think public library librarians will also remain relevant also. I really believe though that all librarians will remain promoters of reading in what ever format that may be.

    Picture is from the Book of Eli. Dude wants to return an overdue book.

    p.s. Milkmen are not extinct. My parents still get milk delivered to their home.

  2. I agree--I don't think public librarians are going anywhere, either. Public libraries are important equalizers in communities, giving access to technology and information that not everyone would have, otherwise. They also help people learn how to use that technology--a vital service in today's environment.

    You win the prize for movie identification. :-)

    And I didn't mean any offense to milkmen. In fact, I see that as one of the jobs that well might flourish once again, as more and more people start deciding to go local for their food. Milkmen of the world, I sincerely apologize for calling your profession dead.

  3. NPR had an interesting article in April about a new program in Baltimore where people could order and pay for their groceries at the public library and then pick them up at the library the next day. A whole new and different way that libraries are helping their communities. (