“A Dying Profession”: Librarians in the Information Age

By Peter Brunette
In February, the NMRT online discussion focused on a question that we’ve all probably faced in-person or online in some manner: with the internet and its various resources, such as Google and Wikipedia, along with e-books, are libraries and librarians still relevant? I can recall talking to a non-library user recently who lamented about how books would disappear since “everything is online now”, therefore making libraries disappear.
Such conversations can be just as difficult to contest when so many articles are written in newspapers or popular magazines about the demise of the traditional library. We can scrutinize the credentials of the article’s writer, speculate upon why he or she might not see the inherent value in the services libraries supply, but it’s even more difficult when the article’s writer is a librarian. In January, Steve Barker, a librarian in the Washington D.C. area, wrote an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal suggesting that today, the professional librarian isn’t necessary when online technology does what they used to do. You can find that article here: http://www.wsj.com/articles/in-age-of-google-librarians-get-shelved-1452461659 .

Mr. Barker’s opinion piece brought a great deal of discussion among librarians, most notably the current ALA President, Sari Feldman, and ALA’s President-Elect, Julie Todaro, who argued that libraries and their staff are more relevant than ever, “At a time of information overload and growing gaps between digital ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ the roles for dynamic and engaged librarians are growing. Though their skills and the technologies they use may be changing, they have never been more valuable to people of all ages, socioeconomic, and educational backgrounds.” You can find their full response here: http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/blogs/the-scoop/librarians-digital-age-wsj-response/)

As librarians, we all know how relevant we, our services, and our institutions are to our communities and society in general. We know that libraries are more than just book repositories, and we use the Internet and new technologies to perform our jobs better than we ever have before. But, how do we convince non-library users that all of this is true?
Through February’s discussion, many people discussed topics for elevator speeches when coming across non-library users who believe libraries are obsolete. Here are some topics that were brought up during the discussion:

  • Over centuries, people have speculated upon the death of physical books whenever a new technology has arrived, the most recent of which has been e-books and e-readers. However, all these new technologies haven’t deterred people from still reading (physical) books; in fact, recent reports have suggested that e-book sales declined in 2015 (such as this article from February in the Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/feb/03/ebook-sales-falling-for-the-first-time-finds-new-report). While people may prefer physical books for various reasons, it is clear that they are an ingrained part of our culture and won’t disappear as fast as technology changes.
  • Pre-Internet information isn’t as readily available online as current information. While a great deal of historical artifacts and collections have been digitized, plenty of historical documents haven’t been digitized due to copyright restrictions, privacy concerns, or lack of digitization materials or funds. This is why archivists are just as vital today than they have been, whether through digitization efforts or preservation of historical documents. Similarly, we need librarians who will preserve digital content for the future, particularly with how easy it is for website links or content to disappear. Resources like the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (https://archive.org/web/) are important for saving our current information for later generations.
  • Computers are only as smart or intuitive as the person who uses them. Therefore, they cannot think for themselves or do tasks beyond what they are programmed to do. Even with a completely virtual library, a librarian is still necessary to create the programs, organize the information, and collaborate with patrons to find the information they desire. Likewise, while anybody can access information online, finding correct or reputable information is more difficult. Google can offer thousands of results, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the first results are the best or correct results. Patrons need librarians to guide them through the resources available to them. The Internet has made website evaluation an excellent skill to possess, whether for students trying to do research or public patrons who are just looking for information on a particular subject.
  • Despite that people are more connected because of the Internet, people still crave in-person interactions. By nature, we are social creatures, and regardless of the library, patrons may come to the library to meet with others or chat with librarians. Those experiences can’t be completely replicated online.
  • Additionally, librarianship is remarkably complex, from quasi-social work to computer programming, all of which requires professional librarians. As technology has evolved, we have evolved with it to meet our patrons’ needs better. Card catalogs have changed into digital catalogs, which continuously improve. Databases have become easier to navigate and manipulate to accommodate a variety of research skills. Even most libraries have changed from being havens of complete silence to community centers where people can meet, collaborate, and partake in programs and events for people of all ages. So, as search engines become increasingly effective at understanding how people search for information, so will librarians and their resources.
  • Libraries are neutral areas that have been proven to be places of refuge in times of strife and uncertainty. A prime example of this is the Ferguson Library in Missouri, who stayed open during unrest in the Ferguson streets to serve all their patrons in 2014, proving that libraries are integral parts to the communities they serve. In addition, libraries can help communities thrive and learn new skills amid chaos. As the world changes, patrons may rely on their libraries to learn about topics such as sewing, water purification, gardening, and raising livestock.
  • Not everyone can afford or justify the expense for technology and internet access compared to more basic necessities, such as food, shelter, electricity, heating, or other family/children needs. Therefore, libraries offer patrons, regardless of economic status, with a place to use the Internet and technology for free. As people are forced to use computers to perform more tasks, such as filing taxes, apply for jobs, or fill out immigration papers, libraries offer patrons more opportunities to perform these tasks that they couldn’t at home, along with librarians who can guide them how to use computers and the Internet. Additionally, even some college students rely upon the library to complete assignments and courses that they may not be able to without such academic support.

Beyond the elevator speech, people offered other advice on advocating libraries and their resources to non-library users. First, librarians need to understand why people in their communities don’t use the library, which may mean actually talking with those constituencies. For those people who are ignorant of what libraries offer, librarians must be prepared to share facts and statistics, such as number of resources, library usage, and programs and services offered. Also, provide people who haven’t been into a library in years (or even decades) and opportunity to visit a modern library, which may challenge their outdated or traditional perspective of what a library is or should be.
Of course, there will always be dissenters who believe libraries are obsolete no matter what facts or information that you provide. Some individuals will always believe that everything they need to know can be found online or can be fixed by some technological advancement, and everything they don’t use must be obsolete. Other individuals will always believe their tax dollars should only be used for government branches that they see as more important, such as the military or the police, and everything else must be useless. While these two cases don’t cover all the types of dissenters out there, librarians must accept that there are some dissenters who will never change their minds and can only discover how vital libraries are with personal experience.
However, as librarians, we need to advocate ourselves, the importance of our work, and how we serve our communities. We are a constantly evolving profession, and if we want our constituencies’ perspectives on libraries to change for the better, we need to make them aware why we are more relevant now in the information age than ever before.

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