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    Fetishizing the library (part 1 of 2)

    Hi there!

    Yeah, I had a feeling that the title would’ve drawn you all in.

    I am going to talk today about “fetishizing” the library, but I have to warn you that I’m using the much less lurid definition of fetish, so if you’re worried about this being a pervy blog entry, you can cease fretting right now.

    Still here? Good! 🙂

    Before I get into les fetiches bibliothèque, I’m going to address one of the great schisms between librarians and the rest of the world.  This might be ambitious, so bear with me.  It’s one of those subjects that librarians avoid, but is inevitable when talking with “normal” people.  I don’t want to use the phrase: “elephant in the room”, because that’s just so cliched, and seldom used correctly.  😦 I am talking, of course, about the most common misperception of librarians.

    I was at a party last year, and one of my friends said to me: “So how does it feel to be replaced by GOOGLE?”.

    I don’t think there was a loud “HAR HAR HAR” following that statement, but my brain obligingly fit it in.

    As a librarian, I had SO many ways to answer that question.  It was practically a required course for my MLIS degree. Right between “Basic Reference Services” and “Human Information Behavior” [shudder] was: “Answering Smarmy Questions About Your Field By Non-Librarians 101”.  Go to any library conference, find the largest group of people you can, and ask: “So you guys must read a lot of books all day, huh?” and wait for the collective exasperated sigh to ripple through the room in waves.  (Don’t ask about the cats-eye glasses and the bun, though, you’re risking your life on that one)

    For many of you reading this, this would be a meaningless question. Librarians are NOT being replaced by Google, and we all know that Google can’t do the things that we can do.  Ask ANY librarian, and he or she will doubtlessly cite the many false positives, hoax or agenda-driven web pages, irrelevant search results, faulty links, Wikipedia entries, and the porn, dear gods the porn.  One of the main selling points of the scholarly databases I use every day is: “These aren’t Google! This is RELIABLE information”.

    And yes, this is all true. At the present time, Google simply can’t compete with a good quick-witted librarian. Yes, we are the masters of information and the gatekeepers of knowledge and all that other elite brainy stuff.  We librarians pride ourselves on our ability to get right down into the meat and marrow of the true facts and statistics, and no slick cyberspace jockey with a search algorithm and a WiFi connection is going to take US in a fight.

    But I can’t help feeling that the very SHAPE of information is changing.  I worry that librarians as a profession are hanging tenuously to the kind of information that we know from our glory days, when we were young and stupid and getting to information was a TASK.  In the Lord of Rings, when Gandalf needed to know how to find out if Bilbo’s magic gold ring was THE ring, he got on a fiery horse with the speed of light and a hearty “Hi-Ho Shadowfax”, and bolted out to the city of Minas Tirith, and followed some poor librarian down 80 flights of stairs to a room in a dungeon stockpiled with so many books, maps, and scrolls that they must have chopped down seven-eighths of Fangorn Forest in the First Age to provide all of that paper.  There he sat with a big old cup of tea and a long pipe leafing through ancient tomes one page at a time, until he found the information he was looking for.

    Gandalf in the library

    "Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg ... yada, yada, yada ... "

    [sigh] Now THAT was library research.

    As a point of contrast, I remember a discussion I had with a friend back in the far-flung age of 1988, when the pop charts were dominated by a pretty boy from Sayreville, NJ.  My friend told me, credulously, that Jon Bon Jovi had been rushed to the hospital to have his stomach pumped, having swallowed an enormous amount of a biological substance that I won’t mention here, suggesting that the young rock star had engaged in a herculean feat of same-sex activity.

    Poppycock!” said I. “Why this is the very same anecdote that has dogged the reputations of so many other young musical talents of ages past, such as Mick Jagger and Rod Stewart!“.
    Deny it all you wish, my skeptical friend.“, he replied. “I maintain that this most recent news item is nothing less than the God’s honest truth! Harrumph!“*

    … and this is how information was disseminated** during the golden age of my youth.  Two teenagers having a debate in the streets on the bedroom activities of our favorite musician was the 18th century salon discussion of our time.  One participant maintaining that Jon Bon Jovi was a kinky same-sex addict, and the other denying it.  No further information exchange needed. Now, imagine how this conversation would go today:

    “Duuude! Didja hear about Kevin Jonas? They like totally took him to the hospital and pumped a pint of –”
    “Nah. Snopes, dude”.
    “True? Aw man…”.

    That this exchange could take place in the middle of the same street where I debated my own friend, then researched and resolved completely on a mobile device, illustrates a salient point.  Kids today, despite what many adults of my generation might think of them, are VERY competent at closing information gaps.  The very selfsame thing that we as librarians used to corner the market on.

    No, Google can’t solve everything. Yes, Google and many other search engines notoriously access many false results, and we as librarians are like, millions of times better at evaluating and discerning truth in information than a faceless sorting algorithm with relevancy ranking.  But I fear a sea-change within the field of library and information science, as young people are getting better at this whole “information seeking” thing.  Even if the current generation of young people are vaguely fumbling through the new information landscape, what happens when the next generation learns how to access and vet reliable information before they can even ride a bike? What do we do THEN? :O

    So where do we go from here? Tune in tomorrow for part 2!!***

    * Yes, we absolutely talked like this. Do you deny it?
    ** pun most certainly not intended.
    *** Bump Bum Bummmmmm!!!”

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