New York Times Spotlights Librarians, but Misses the Bullseye

New York Times Spotlights Librarians, but Misses the Bullseye.

When a Search Engine Isn't Enough, Call a Librarian

“For generations, reference librarians have been known as the source for answers to perplexing questions on almost any subject. In recent years libraries found other means for answering questions, offering reference services over the telephone, by e-mail, and more recently, through 24-hour Internet chat services.

Still, with a widespread public expectation that answers can be found almost instantly by typing a few words into an Internet search engine, librarians increasingly find themselves on the sidelines in the question-answering business. So they are slowly warming to the idea that they must educate the public about ways to sort through the mountain of available information.

'When Google doesn't work, most people don't have a plan B,' said Joe Janes, an associate professor in the Information School at the University of Washington in Seattle, who is teaching a course on Google this quarter. 'Librarians have lots of plan B's. We know when to go to a book, when to call someone, even when to go to Google.' ” [New York Times]

So everyone and their library dog has linked to this article now, even me. Is it nice to see librarians portrayed in a positive light in the New York Times? You bet! The article hints at how librarians know some tricks that the average person doesn't, but I think there are stronger examples that would have illustrated this point better. Relate one of those harder questions that the article mentions. And would it have killed the NYT to link to the New York fricking Public Library?! You can't even tell from this article that they have a live help service or online access to more than a hundred databases with more reliable and in-depth information than Google!

I was at my neighbor's house a couple of weeks ago, the 65-year old lady who just got broadband and had never used a computer before. She's picking it up pretty quickly (I'm like a proud mother), but I still go over there periodically and help out, give lessons, answer questions. On the day in question, her son dropped by while I was there. He's in his early 40s, and he knows how to search for stuff on Google. She wanted to look up her nephew online, so he told her to type his name in the search engine.  I added, “But put quotes around his name.” They asked why, and I explained that it would search the name as a phrase. He nodded and said, “Gee, didn't know that one. Thanks.”

Do most of the people reading this sentence already know that? Probably. Do the neighbors of most of the people reading this sentence already know that? Probably not. And that's where librarians have failed. The folks at my home library teach search strategies, but we're horrible at marketing that fact. It hadn't occured to my neighbor to ask the library for help online, and she lives next door to the director! The last paragraph of the article brings this point home:

“But unless librarians can convince people that their local library has an edge on Google, communities under pressure to cut costs may have an easy time reducing the library's budget. After all, Mr. Janes said, the politicians 'will think, 'That library is nice, but we can cut them back because everything is on the Internet.' ' “

Even in an article that highlights the search skills of librarians, the reporter still gets it wrong. Librarians don't have to convince people that the library has an edge on Google. We're not in competition with Google. That mindset is the equivalent of thinking that librarians were competing against the World Almanac or Encyclopedia Britannica before the internet arrived.

In this day and age, more than ever, librarians are the perfect complement to Google. You think Google is a huge resource, but libraries and librarians are so much more than that. Joe's last sentence in the above excerpt should have been, “Librarians are your plan B.”

Why do I keep asking for a library-based toolbar? Why do I love Jon Udell's LibraryLookup bookmarklet so much? Why do I praise live, real-time online reference every chance I get? If you go back and re-read parts of OCLC's Environmental Scan released last month, I state it pretty clearly. People have their own ways of finding information, from asking friends to searching Google. We don't have to be the intermediary for every information transaction. What we need to be is ready to step in when that transaction fails. Teach people to fish, but help them find the fish when they're casting in the wrong part of the lake. But to do that, you have to be prepared, waiting in the wings, and increasingly those wings aren't in your physical building. We need to integrate our services into the user's environment.

In other words, shift.  [The Shifted Librarian]

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