Sunday, May 01, 2011

What librarians do

Lately, I've been reading columns about librarians that trade in bold statements like "reference is dead" or "if libraries don't catch up, they'll be dead" - lots of death language, actually, now that I think about it. I have to catch my own reactions to these, because I don't want to be reactionary in a self-preservation kind of way. But I have this instinct that the recommendation, personalization, and monetization aspects of much online information (which I guess is supposed to replace resource description and reference) doesn't apply to every information need. What librarians have always done is just being called by new words now - curation, for instance. And you can post all the books and images online you want, but without good metadata, search does you no good.

Anyway - if the first paragraph is all my own ranting, this one is about the validation I found in the introduction to All Facts Considered by Kee Malesky. For those of you who don't listen to NPR around the clock (even the credits), she is a reference librarian there. FIRST of all, Malesky refers to librarians as "generalists, people who know a little about a lot of things" (2). She took the words right out of my mouth/blogger profile! Then she gets at one of the fundamental functions of librarianship:

"Knowledge is inherently ambiguous and any system of classification is arbitrary; one could argue that it's absurd even to attempt to sort things into categories. But sort we must because it's in our nature, and because it's necessary to make information manageable. (Managing information is something that all librarians do every day.)" (4)

Leaving aside the huge amount of information that is neither online nor machine-searchable, and leaving aside the access (financial and physical) much of the country, and world, has to broadband or mobile Internet, there has not yet been a substitute invented for helping people adjust their searching keywords or techniques based on a good reference interview. That reference interview can be through e-mail, chat, text, or the brain-chip instant-communication I'm sure will be here soon. When the consequences of finding the right information matters to people (whether it's health information, articles for a research paper, or correct facts for a NPR piece), the way information is organized and having someone to help you is where librarians thrive.

This is a "rah-rah librarians" post. I admit it. I needed to create my own antidote to the gloomy "the Internet always knows exactly what you want" stuff I've been reading lately. (Which doesn't preclude adapting and learning new things...see below!!) And I'll close with it, too. Kee Malesky, take it away:

"I've always believed that being a librarian is a vocation, a calling, and not just a job. What we do matters in the world. Every moment of the day, I must be open to learning something that will help me to be a better librarian." (5)

All quotations from Malesky, Kee. All Facts Considered: The Essential Library of Inessential Knowledge. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010. Print.