November 7, 2011
After The Lawyers, Let's Get Rid Of The Librarians
There was an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times last week titled Saving libraries but not librarians [Blowback]. The author, Dan Terzian, is identified as a fellow at the New Media Rights legal clinic and a lecturer at Peking University School of Transnational Law. He argues that the Internet has effectively replaced librarians and we should just get on with collecting our unemployment checks and finding new careers. Everything is available through Google. Here is the heart of his argument:
The digital revolution has made many librarians obsolete. Historically, librarians exclusively provided many services: They organized information, guided others' research and advised community members. But now, librarians compete with the Internet and Google. Unlike libraries, the Internet's information is not bound by walls; from blogs and books to journals and laws, the Internet has them all. And Google makes this information easily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.
All but the most heady research can be performed by a Google, Google Books or Google Scholar search. Have a question about whether you should be paid overtime? Just Google "overtime pay California" without quotes, and the first result is a California government website with an answer to your question. Even many college students' first -- and often last -- source for research is Google. Only after Googling fails would the students seek a librarian's guidance.
The Internet can even advise community members. For example, Goodreads assists you in finding books to read, Penelope Trunk teaches you how to write a resume, the Berkeley Parents Network advises you how to raise teens, pre-teens and young adults. Whatever your question, you can find an answer through the Internet (and Google).
I think the author is missing something, or at least assumes that there is always an answer available through the Internet and that answer is good enough. I think anyone who offers reference advice, and not merely legal reference, knows better. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told “I’ve tried Google and I couldn’t find anything.” The answer usually comes from proprietary material locked behind a pay wall (and conveniently unlocked by library subsidized licensing) or material not easily located online, or in print. Google’s good for what it’s good for, but my day is not filled with cipher-like searches on behalf of people who could simply do it themselves.
Search engines have limits. They never say anything about the quality of the information, the reputation of the source, or, as reference librarians sometimes do, guess what the real question is. They provide links to unstructured information. That’s it. There are a lot of empty information calories out there, if the author hadn’t noticed. Speaking of which, Homer Simpson’s quote comes to mind, “Donuts, is there anything they can’t do?” Yeah, they can’t formulate a Google search that gets you everything you could want every time you want it.
I’m all for people being information self-sufficient, but it’s an illusion to think that the Internet is everything the world has to offer. Librarians do not simply point to information and look away. They help create a context for information. That function transcends technical and scholarly questions. According to the ALA, a survey showed that public libraries served 87 million people in 2009. There were 216,872 reference transactions on average per library. I guess Google by itself wasn’t good enough. Or possibly another Homer Simpson quote applies: "Me use brain? Uh oh." Either way, Google isn't driving librarians out of a job, wishful thinking aside. [MG]
I smell a rat that has been bought off by Google et al. Daily we have people come into our law library claiming that they have been googling their fingers off and not being able to find what they need (i.e. legal research). What I tell them is that you get what you pay for. Google is nice for what it is but it is not the end all beat all and these sanctimonious lecturers (who, by the way, only practice theory in the academic setting) no nothing of the real world practice of law and legal research.
Posted by: Bret | Nov 8, 2011 11:22:51 AM
He argues that the Internet has effectively replaced librarians and we should just get on with collecting our unemployment checks and finding new careers.
Um...no. The heart of Terzian's argument is that:
"Libraries should bifurcate. Some, such as college libraries, should employ classically trained librarians - those educated with librarian graduate degrees - to safeguard historical materials and assist others' research. They would serve as a backup when people require more extensive research than the Internet can currently provide.
Other libraries, by contrast, need few - if any - classically trained librarians. Instead, their librarians may be made up of English or other liberal arts majors who yearn for the literary librarian lifestyle."
The majority of law libraries - and law librarians - fall squarely in the first category.
I recognize the point, and suppose I should be comfortable that I work in a specialized academic library. Nonetheless, because Terzian believes, in a pubic library setting, that he doesn't need librarians, no one should need them. I believe that to be completely wrong. - Mark
Posted by: Mikhail Koulikov | Nov 7, 2011 5:45:46 PM