Recently someone asked me:

What is the modern day advantage of a librarian? … It seems like the resources of the internet are taking away some of the advantages of consulting a librarian…

If I’ve answered this question once, I’ve answered it a thousand times. The person asking values efficiency in both process and cost, and was asking because he genuinely wanted to know where librarians stand at this point in the Information Age. The question stems from the reality that “Libraries, library services, and librarianship are caught in a process of seemingly constant change – change that is almost universally ascribed to technology” (Michael Gorman in Our Enduring Values: Librarianship in the 21st Century, 2000, page 2). But it was about 2:00 AM. I said, “Wow, I am never going to sleep tonight,” and then “The short answer is, not everything is on the internet.” Since it was late, we decided to take a rain check on the conversation, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind as I tried to fall asleep. In an attempt to answer the question, challenge myself to an intellectual exercise that holds both professional and personal interest to me, and save myself the burden of repetitive response syndrome (I totally made that up – or is it a real condition? Maybe what I mean is “repetitive response fatigue”? See “racial fatigue” and “racial battle fatigue“), I am sharing my answer here. Please forgive the haphazard organization and structure of this entry and the sometimes emphasis on libraries instead of librarians – the two are inseparable in my mind – and everything I couldn’t say because there simply isn’t time.

I believe we will always need librarians and libraries in some form or another, and this I believe for several reasons, including but not limited to, and in no particular order:

Libraries, and by extension, librarians, are an American value. They are necessary for our democratic society to function (see Libraries and Democracy: The Cornerstones of Liberty edited by Nancy Kranich, 2001 and Our Enduring Values, cited above, pages 158-171). If we truly believe that anyone can pursue and achieve the American dream, then we must provide the environment and the resources for such a pursuit. Free, uncensored access to information, news, books, and other resources and materials in a variety of media, including the internet, is necessary for people to educate themselves and be engaged members of society. Libraries build and sustain communities, connect the past with the present, and help societies prepare for the future. The composition, character and uses of libraries may shift over the years, as they have in the past, but they will never be obsolete. Librarians adapt as society and societal demands change, but their core values remain the same: “Libraries in America are cornerstones of the communities they serve. Free access to the books, ideas, resources, and information in America’s libraries is imperative for education, employment, enjoyment, and self-government” (Libraries: An American Value). Nancy Kranich echoes, “If a free society is to survive, it must ensure the preservation of its records and provide free and open access to this information to all its citizens” (page v). It’s unlikely that even the richest person in the U.S. can amass and organize all the resources – in print and otherwise – that will provide him or her with all the information s/he can get from public libraries. It is unlikely that s/he will have the proper background and training for such an undertaking. But the thousands of libraries and librarians across the country can and do.

Libraries are a public good that exist for the common good of the public sphere. In “Libraries and the Public Sphere,” Buschman says, “If information and its related sets of critical skills are as important to economic and political participation as we keep insisting, then what information we produce, how we keep it, what we keep, and how it is absorbed or not are crucial questions in our culture – and libraries are important (if undervalued) institutions in this.” He bases his argument on Jurgen Habermas’ theory of “supervision: the principle that for power to be legitimate, its proceedings must be made public” and therefore “subjected to the rational bases of critique and debate.” JS Mill would agree (see below). Without access to proceedings you can have no scrutiny, and without scrutiny, power cannot be legitimized. Libraries should provide collections that reflect the range of public thought, whether it’s to the far left, the far right, or anywhere in between, because…

We need an informed public. In “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion,” John Stuart Mill argues, “But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” In other words, no matter how much you disagree with your opponent’s argument, you must still allow it to be shared because the collusion of your arguments refine the truth. You will understand your own argument better, and be better able to debunk your opponent’s argument. “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion” is the first article I assign in my Introduction to Library and Information Science class because this philosophy is absolutely foundational to the existence of libraries, which, again, are essential to an informed public and democratic society. Librarians who likewise believe in this philosophy should consciously build collections and provide access to materials (whether on the internet or elsewhere) that present multiple perspectives on any given issues, multiple voices telling the same story, multiple theories and interpretations and approaches. Mill writes, “He who knows his own side of the case, knows little of that… But if he equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.” Librarians provide these multiple sides – materials on evolution and creationism, on pro-choice and pro-life, on the conservative right and the radical left – so that people can read and come to their own conclusions.

Librarians do a lot of work behind the scenes. The stereotype about librarians doing nothing but checking out books and saying “shush!” to rambunctious (read: youthful) patrons does  major disservice to our profession. Librarians read reviews and order books to build tailored collections for their particular communities. They process and label and shelve and repair these books. They apply for more and more grants as their federal or municipal funding decreases. They advocate for policies that support libraries, education, communities – for example, the American Library Association has a Washington Office for exactly this purpose. And librarians do a lot of work on the front line: They recommend and discuss books and other materials. They give book talks. They do programming – book clubs, author talks, storytellings, movie/book pairings, game nights, computer classes – the list goes on. They answer questions from many different people – homeless people wanting to know where the nearest shelter is, children needing help with homework, college students seeking resources for their research, unemployed people needing help applying for a job, parents wanting books to read with their kids, business people wanting to learn more about their industry, lawyers needing to review previous cases that set historical precedent, government officials who need to be informed before deciding on issues. And maybe the government official needs a book on how to fix her broken toilet; maybe the parent wants a book about gardening; maybe the student needs a book on how to vote. Reference librarians in particular respond to all these queries. They have been specially trained to answer these types of questions, to organize collections and websites in such a way that makes access easy, logical, even inviting.

Not everything is on the internet. Even if many resources migrate to the internet, and even if the internet is increasingly useful, these resources need to be organized, evaluated, and accessed. Librarians are prepared to do that work through courses such as Electronic Resource Management, Database Management, and Reader’s Advisory. Thomas Augst writes, “As a symbolic space, a type of collection, a kind of building, the library gives institutional form to our collective memory” (“The Library as an Agency of Culture” in American Studies 42:3 Fall 2001, page 16). Libraries are repositories of our collective history and our contemporary society; these are organized by librarians who have been educated in archives, building collections, evaluating collections, and doing programming around those collections. The programming that happens in a library cannot be exactly replicated on the internet. That is not to say that digital archives or digital libraries are useless; it’s just not the same. For example, I’ve done extensive research at the Children’s Literature Research Collection at the University of Minnesota. I’ve touched draft illustrations of the classic picture book Good Night Moon, held letters written by Lois Lowry, and examined hand written manuscript drafts by Judy Blume. Their hands touched these materials, and then so did mine. That experience cannot be replicated online. Nor can the accumulation of those materials. CLRC curator Karen Nelson-Hoyle has traveled the world over soliciting manuscripts, drafts, galleys, proofs, correspondence from authors, editors, and illustrators. She and her assistant then organize these materials and make them accessible to scholars and students. The internet assists in this endeavor, but it can not do it alone. Curators use the internet to do their work better, the internet does not do this work for them.

Not everyone can access the internet. Computers and internet lines are expensive. Especially with the unemployment rate so high, internet access is a luxury. The UW iSchool / Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation / IMLS report “Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries” (2010) details how public libraries have provided internet access to Americans in the areas of education, government, home improvement, personal finance, health and wellness etc., thus providing a powerful testimony for the continued support of public libraries, their technological infrastructure/hardware/software, and of course, the librarian-teachers who teach users how to use the internet. The authors write that this study “shows that beyond the Internet connections and computers that libraries provide to make this possible, the one-on-one help and other resources librarians, library staff, and volunteers provide to the users is an important element in the success of these services” (emphasis mine).

Not everyone knows how to access the internet. Many of our youth may not be able to imagine a world without the internet, but there are still many people without access, or who don’t know how to access for whatever reason. We will always have digital immigrants because we will always have some form of digital divide, whether it be based on class, age, ability, geography (read: rural communities).

Print is still primary. Yes, there is a lot of information on the internet. Some of it used to be available in print – government forms are a good example that are increasingly available only online – but print is still primary. According to the Association of American Publishers 2010 report, “Virtually every book publishing category showed growth in one or both comparisons, with the phenomenal popularity of E-books continuing.” That E-books enjoyed “phenomenal popularity” is neither here nor there for this argument, as a librarian is still necessary to review, select, catalog, process, and recommend the E-book. One might argue that readers can do this themselves, but 1) not everyone has access to publishers’ catalogs [related, not all readers have the repertoire to understand the book in context]; 2) there are many gatekeepers between the publication and the publication landing on a shelf – whether physical or virtual; 3) who do you think reviews books? Mostly librarians. AAP reports $11.67 BILLION in book sales for 2010; even if a quarter of this were E-books (it is not), that’s a significant chunk of people buying – and reading – print.

Young people need libraries and librarians. Studies have shown that students in schools that have well funded libraries with ALA-accredited librarians perform better across the board. Libraries provide essential programming for children and their families These programs promote literacy, connect children to each other and the community, and allow families to spend time with stories. Dr. Keith Curry Lance’s 1993 research, “The Impact of School Library Media Centers on Academic Achievement,” in which he found that “the library in terms of its staff and its collection is a direct predictor of reading scores” provides some of the most powerful and compelling evidence supporting school libraries and librarians. His more recent “What Research Tells us About the Importance of School Libraries” reviews some newer scholarship that basically comes to the same conclusion: “when school libraries have higher levels of professional and total staffing, larger collections of print and electronic resources, and more funding, students tend to earn higher scores on state reading tests” So… why are we firing so many school librarians? (Hello California, I’m asking you a question.)

Disabled people need libraries and librarians. Assistive technology is expensive. Not everyone can afford the readers and other technologies that assist blind and other differently abled people to access the internet. I teach Internet Fundamentals and Design, and I make sure my students learn how to build websites that blind people can use. They must use tags and order their links and headings so that a reader can help users understand and navigate their websites. People who are differently abled should have same or similar access to the internet. Librarians who have reviewed and learned how to use these technologies can then teach users and their caregivers to use them.

We need libraries and librarians always, but particularly in tough economic times. Read Chicago Public Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey’s response to a rather shortsighted and uninformed news story by FOX News (“Are Libraries Necessary, or a Waste of Tax Money?“)

In this age of assessment, the public demands that libraries and librarians prove their worth. However, “the values and effects of a library, like good teaching, are extraordinarily difficult to quantify” (Buschman), but that doesn’t mean they are not there. We all do better when we all do better. An informed and educated public means better schools and teachers, better public institutions (such as libraries, parks, museums, etc.), a better commitment to sustaining a culture of learning and meaningful living, which means there will be people who are better prepared for the workforce, which is essential for lifting Americans out of this recession. I’ll close this entry by asserting again that libraries and librarians are essential to an educated public, an informed democracy, a functional and cohesive and culturally rich society. Librarians are guardians of knowledge who connect people with information. Wayne Weigand, a highly respected library historian, says capitalism may not appreciate what it is we do, but democracy does (quoted in Buschman). Prioritizing capitalism over democracy is essentially prioritizing money over people, and when that happens, we’re losing our sense of humanity, of dignity, of integrity.

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