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More hand wringing and some hope

This was going to be a post about how good it was to meet colleagues at ALA Midwinter Meeting in Boston Monday, hearing what’s going on in their libraries and what they are doing to serve their communities. I didn’t spend as much time there as I did at PLA a couple of year’s ago, but I did meet some people and exchanged ideas and had a LOT of fun giving my Ignite talk. I also had the chance to hear a presentation fromLee Rainie, director of Internet, Science, and Technology at Pew Research Center, on their public library research (if you read Nocturnal Librarian regularly you know I’m a fangirl), which made me grateful to my fellow Americans who are life-long learners and library lovers in large majorities.

But then someone posted a strangely out of touch article from the Wall Street Journal on our state-wide librarians’ email list, “In the Age of Google, Librarians Get Shelved.” The author’s point is mainly that professional librarians are obsolete (because of Google? I can’t imagine this was really written by a librarian) and are being replaced with younger, techier, less skilled and less formally educated “assistants.” First of all, the issue of paraprofessional staffing in libraries where once there were many more people with masters degrees is as much about the general outcry against taxation that has gripped America in the past decades, the bursting of pubic pension funds and rising costs of health care, the slashing of municipal budgets, and the trend in both public and private sector to hire more part-time and lower wage hourly workers and fewer salaried full timers who cost their employers extra in benefits as well as pay. It’s also, dare I say, reflective of a lack of understanding of what we do on the part of people who read an article like this one and think they have an accurate picture of libraries today.

Second of all, I don’t know where or when the author got his own degree, or if he even has one, but clearly he missed any courses or training in research. As I’ve frequently written here, libraries may be evolving in terms of offering more technology and picking up the slack in providing jobs related assistance (resume writing, online training, search assistance, etc.), social service referrals and assistance (including a good bit of unofficial homeless shelter-ing and services for immigrants), and as I’ve heard more and more lately, offering meeting space for small groups when those spaces are disappearing.

But what we do — connecting people with information and resources and even more essentially, helping them navigate the tsunami of information that the author notes many find via Google. — is the same core mission libraries have always had, our materials just come in more formats. And yes we also provide important resources, increasingly, for entrepreneurs, freelancers, consultants, and telecommuters who prefer to work where the WiFi is free, they don’t feel compelled to buy coffees or meals, and they can spread out at a desk or table without being asked not to linger. Oh, and they can get expert research assistance, access to databases, newspapers, magazines, books, etc., anytime, for free.

Professional librarians and paraprofessionals alike are trained to provide information literacy (determining the reliability and/or bias of information, safely and securely navigating the Internet, etc.), a key component of being a self-sufficient adult in our society. We also provide early literacy for free to families — at a time when politicians can mostly only bicker about it. And programs for all ages (also free), and some of the only quiet spaces left in America that are open to all, as a benefit of citizenship. No, we don’t shush people anymore, but most libraries, save maybe the tiniest, offer some haven for those who need to study, read, or think in peace.

At any rate, librarians are not going away, and libraries offer so much more at our reference desks than looking up facts and figures (there isn’t much demand for those anymore anyway, just listen to what passes for public discourse). Yes we also make change, point out where the bathrooms are, and help people find their print jobs, and most of us have fewer physical reference books to refer to. But you know what? We can still find a lot more than the average person and so much more than Google to work with. I wonder if that writer has even heard of the deep web? No, it’s not some kind of spy game, it’s all the stuff that lurks below the www surface, that your local skilled librarian can help you find. Just ask. We’re still here for you, and we’re not going anywhere. Thankfully, since most people are interested in learning and admire libraries, I am hopeful that more people know that than don’t.



About Deb Baker

Deb Baker is a writer and insatiable reader, and library director at a community college. She muses about library issues at The Nocturnal Librarian ( and blogs about books, reading, and life at bookconscious ( Her family includes two awesome offspring, a husband, and the cat who adopted them. And a crazy rescue kitten.

5 responses to “More hand wringing and some hope

  1. The Disobedient Author ⋅

    In the UK many libraries are shutting down, cut as part of the Conservative Government’s Austerity plan. In years to come, people will look back and wonder how we could be so short-sighted.

    • Deb Baker

      It’s awful, you are right. What’s especially baffling is that libraries can help government with many of the civic issues most on their constituents’ minds, like assimilating new citizens to local culture and building a strong sense of community, promoting literacy, and assisting people seeking to learn new skills and develop existing ones.

      • The Disobedient Author ⋅

        I agree. Nuts. In my hometown, Blandford Forum in Dorset, the library provides a vital lifeline to the elderly and mothers with under 5s, with social events, book clubs, baby story time etc. An elderly person on a small pension might not be able to afford to buy books, but cannot drive and the library closes? No more reading for them.
        It also provides computer lessons on how to use the web, and a safe, quiet place for people to go in the centre of town to study, order in academic journals etc. Blandford is already quite a deprived town, with a hulk of a high street because of the London landlords and their extortionate rents. If they remove the library, they will kill another vital part of the community.

  2. The Disobedient Author ⋅

    (for the benefit of your foreign readers)

  3. ninthwavedesigns ⋅

    I love this Deb – this is right on the spot! Articles like the one you write about here, particularly when they are fronted by librarians, represent lazy librarianship. It is irresponsible at best to suggest that the answer to the question about the “future of libraries” is that Google has killed them, and only the least creative among us would suggest that. The future of libraries is now, it is happening, and it is being driven by a large number of thoughtful, energetic, forward thinking professionals and paraprofessionals alike. These folks need to step aside so that the real work can be done by those you enjoy the challenge!

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