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Geoffrey Nunberg Hearts Librarians (But I’m Still Worried)

“In the end, then, instruction in information literacy will have to pervade every level of education and every course in the curriculum, from university historians’ use of collections of online slave narratives to middle-school home economics teachers showing their students where to find reliable nutrition information on the Web.”

— Geoffrey Nunberg, “Teaching Students to Swim in the Online Sea” (New York Times, February 13, 2005)

Nunberg (linguist, writer, and radio essayist) gives librarians a big nod not only for our skills but our unheralded contributions to developing information literacy standards. Yet he then points out that as Anne Lipow said so often, the librarian is remote from the user: “But today, students have only limited contact with librarians, particularly because they do most of their online information-seeking at home or in the dorm.”

Information flows down the path of least resistance; at least that is my theory, based on human behavior, where people will “satisfice” with a Google search even though with some additional work they could get higher-quality information. It will take more than developing services students like to introduce ourselves back into the conversation. I know of many libraries that offer tremendous services no one knows about.

Yes, I am a bit worried (and if you feel this post is veering sharply off-course, it is because from here on in it is adapted from a post to Web4Lib this morning). As someone with public library management experience, I know we should project into the future, because wise managers know they are as good as next year’s tax bond. Tomorrow’s tax base (and increasingly this generation’s tax base) lives in a Googlized, SMS, blogging, interactive, fingertip world. These people are not in your libraries right now. They are off being teenagers (who in large numbers do not use library services), and then they are off being college students (who as Geoffrey Nunberg reminded us this weekend sit in their dorm rooms Googling half-baked information even though librarians hundreds of feet away may be sitting at a desk wondering where the people are), and then they are off being twenty-somethings (who are also not in your libraries). If you do not begin adapting your services to these people, when they are taxpayers do not expect their support.

For some time those of us on the technical side of things (and I consider myself systems middleware, not a coder but a manager) have been told all too often that technology is a caboose, often an unwanted caboose, on the “real”
work of librarianship. We have been told that even as we have watched how people interact with the information world change more dramatically than any time since the advent of the printing press. We have been told that even as content moves to digital formats we are slow to deliver (so that by the time a format becomes popularized its users are elsewhere). We have been told that even when traditional library services have become near-relics because however good we are (and that goodness has always been up for examination), increasingly people do not think about library reference services when they have a question, let alone drive across town or even walk to the next building or pick up the phone or send an IM to ask a question.

We have been told that even when we saw a trend truly developing, a trend, not a fad, and we who follow trends recommend we ride it like a wave instead of being next year’s adopters. We can own a technology and build our user base through it, the way the rest of the world operates, or we can ignore it until the commercial forces have coopted more users and by the time we do adopt it people are asking where we have been with it. “My users won’t understand it”–in the early 20th century, in the Social Work movement, librarians went out of their way to help immigrants learn the ways of the New World. That is what we do. That is who we are. Books are just one quiver in our bow. Besides, in many cases, by the time librarians get around to adopting some newfangled trend, their users already well understand it. Just because I do not game does not make it unimportant, and the same is true with RSS feeds. The growth in this one small technology is boggling. I tell you that the users for the digital library I manage understand it just fine, and are running toward it in droves, even though they are not a technical audience, just an information-friendly audience.

We can always point to the exceptions and the stellar examples, the heartwarming personal anecdotes, the current data, but given the radical changes to the information landscape, if we decide that what we are “good at” is doing business the way we’ve always done it, we are going to be in the same pickle as the railroads (q.v. Andrew Abbott’s discussion in “The System of Professions” of how railroads saw themselves in the rail business, not the transportation business). In watching some of the recent tax bond battles, I wonder if we aren’t already there. It will take more to regain ground than simply being the technology centers of last resort. I know that is an important role, though in too many libraries I would hate to be that person waiting on line for an hour for my slurp at the digital trough. We have to regain our ground, to feel our way forward, even when we trip in the dark, even when we follow the wrong hallway.

I have even heard librarians say libraries should be slow to adopt major new information technologies, which is not only poor strategy but inexcusable from a social justice point of view, as well as slightly self-indulgent (look how wise I am–I’m taking ten years to offer Internet access!). Yet Charles McClure said in the 1990s that in addition to being a place of last resort, the library can be a place of first resort, a place people want to go. When it does that, the library, oddly enough, becomes more just in its service to the poor, because it is offering them services they would otherwise have no access to. That is real justice; that is an ethical approach to information services.

Furthermore, to return briefly to Nunberg and address a point he did not get to in his excellent editorial, we librarians are best equipped to teach users ethical behavior and other customs in the online environment. I made this point often in the late 1990s, when I talked about filtering in libraries. We ran into problems introducing the Internet in libraries in part because we weren’t savvy enough ourselves to understand that the Internet was very different than anything else we had offered and we had to be proactive in modeling its usage. Instead we too often picked it up between thumb and forefinger and flung it like an old fish to our users, and were then astonished when they used it in ways we had not anticipated and did not care for. In the same way, we can tsk-tsk over rampant plagiarism and other forms of content theft among students, but what are we doing in this area of information literacy? We have left this role entirely to educators, even though this is a topic we should own. The world should turn to librarianship when questions about credibility, authenticity, authority, and ownership arise. But few even think of us. If Nunberg were not teaching in a school that once upon a time was a library school but now seems to survive just fine in a post-library framework, I doubt he would have thought of librarians, let alone mentioned them in his editorial.

Then, when a library spends money on information technology, it often pours most of its resources into what we quaintly call “library automation,” which is basically providing a not-handily-searchable index to the print book catalog, and leaves but a few trimmings for anything that either makes “library automation” tastier and more nutritious or that goes beyond offering up a few machines for the public or that, God forbid, trains its librarians to be the savvy leaders of a new technology.

I am not writing off books. Like many librarians, traditional or otherwise, I am a biblioholic. I use and love libraries on their own quirky terms–even the local library that scatters its biographies throughout the collection rather than pulling them together in a section because, I was told, they–note, they, not their users–prefer a “subject-based” approach (which means I get my biographies from Amazon or the local bookstore, where I can browse the genre)–even the library a little farther north where I once tried to work for an hour or two but could not because they block instant messaging, which we use at our job, even the urban library that has a web page that looks like a ransom note written out in inscrutable librarian jargon. But can anyone look at the information landscape today and seriously say that in fifty years libraries can and must look as they do now? Does anyone believe such a model of librarianship serves our users?

If we decide that we are in the same business we have been since the early 20th century, then we are defining ourselves by the formats we deliver and the buildings we inhabit, and we will be the cobblers of the 21st century. I believe in a vision of librarianship broader and more permanent than that, a vision of librarianship that flexes forward to provide services and champion values for many generations to come. I repeat: we must reach people where they are, and to do that we must become librarians unbound.

(See also an assessment of Nunberg’s piece from Librarian in Black.)

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