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.

 

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Itchy Itchy Scratchy Scratchy

I have a raging poison ivy/oak/sumac rash at the moment, I’m not sure which & I’m not going back out there to inspect the woods behind our rock wall to find out. In the process of finding information about how to treat my affliction, I found out that people really don’t trust the internet as a reliable source of information. I was surprised, because when I worked as a college reference librarian I heard colleagues and professors lament that “kids today” believe everything they read online. (A related problem: teachers who assign kids’ homework with the rule, “no online sources.” Many libraries are adding more and more e-books to their collections, which leaves librarians explaining to parents, “It’s a book, it’s just online.”)

I’m thinking it’s a little more complicated than that because I had a series of conversations with friends, relatives, and total strangers from different generations in the last few days about poison ivy; specifically about whether it spreads and how to alleviate the discomfort. (FYI, it spreads systemically in your body once you’re exposed to the chemical in the leaves that causes the rash, but you can’t spread it yourself by scratching or contact with the rash; I’m still working on alleviating the discomfort). What I learned is that people are very mistrustful of any information online that doesn’t come from someone they know. 

As reference librarians we spend time teaching people how to look for accurate information online and how to tell if a website is trustworthy. I have come across plenty of patrons (usually not young people) who are a little too trusting of something they found online. But I never realized how many people don’t trust the web at all, even if the information is from a good source (Mayo Clinic’s website, for example) or if the information is essentially the same offline. But if people see something a friend posted, they seem to find it more reliable.

Have you come across this? How do you convince patrons they can trust an online source? And how about the touchy subject of social media not necessarily being reliable — at least no more reliable than cocktail party or break room chatting? Which is to say, sometimes it’s brilliant, accurate, and spot on advice and sometimes it’s, well, not. In fact, it’s like any information: you have to consider the source.

Library instruction, or teaching college students to fish

You’ve probably heard the proverb, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him today; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Two of my favorite nonprofits are modeled on this idea: Heifer International founder Dan West was delivering milk to Spanish Civil War victims and realized “These children don’t need a cup, they need a cow.” Habitat for Humanity‘s mission is to eradicate poverty housing with “a hand up, not a handout,” so they partner with families to build a simple decent home purchased with a no-interest loan.

Reference is another form of service; we’re teaching library patrons how to fish for information.  Students who ask me for assistance often want to fish for themselves; they just need a little guidance. But some have always had someone else fish for them and would prefer I catch, clean, prepare, and serve up the information they need, as quickly as possible.

How to handle this kind of interaction? Gently, but firmly. The patron may be somewhat impatient in the short term if I encourage him or her to search a database (with suggestions and pointers), learn to locate a book on the shelf (sadly, some college students claim they’ve never done this, particularly in a library with LC classification), or to find citation information.

But when the library is closed or the student has graduated and needs to assess the reliability of a website, find a key piece of information for a work assignment, or even just look for a good book, I know I’ll have laid the groundwork for independent information literacy.

Class of 2012, may your fishing feed you well for the rest of your lives.

Please note, the semester is wrapping up at the Nocturnal Librarian blog. I will post less frequently during the summer months.