So yesterday I spoke about the old school library, and how Google threatens to destroy us all. Today, I’ve got a few ideas about how to remedy this situation. I don’t know if I have any NEW ideas, but I certainly hope to start a conversation.
As we all know, we as librarians are under no threat from the likes of Google (or other search engines). Google has a very clever algorithm for sorting through results, but it honestly can’t compete with a good old-fashioned librarian when it comes to getting the kinds of information that people need. A librarian is a consultant, someone who can guide the user step-by-step, eliminating false positives, and fine-tuning the search until all that’s left are the patron’s perfect results. This is the type of interaction that librarians strive for. When we complete a search, and the patron is looking up at us with glowing adoration in their eyes because we’ve just shown the mastery of our research skills, when the patron thanks us, and shakes our hand and promises to send us cookies every Christmas from now until their dying day, it kinda makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside. That’s the reference interaction that makes it all worth it. We feel validated. It makes all those years of slogging through our MLIS degree worth it. In these moments, we know deep in our hearts that the world NEEDS us. That there will always be a place for librarians, no matter what the cynics say.
Yet I fear that these types of reference interactions are slowly becoming fewer and farther between. With the rise of the Internet, people are simply becoming more savvy.
I remember in the old days, when I was the only person at my workplace who understood the concept of e-mail. I remember the questions that I used to get when I would explain to someone that they could write to anyone on the planet, as long as that other person had an e-mail address.
“Okay, how much is this gonna cost me?”
“[sigh] I’m sending them a letter, right?”
“Well … yes! Yes you are”.
“So who pays for it?”
“Well, it’s … free”.*
“You mean to tell me that I’m writing a letter, that this letter is going across PHONE lines, and no one’s making money off of this?”
“Well, I guess someone is, but you don’t have to pay any–“.
“Yeah, I don’t buy that. You must be getting scammed somewheres. I’m just gonna type this out the normal way and use a stamp”.
But in these days, no one even questions e-mail. No one thinks twice about the fact that they can read newspaper and magzine articles online, free of charge. No one questions that they can look at family photos online without going to a photo-mat. We all just take it for granted now.
So what happens when doing online research becomes second nature to people?
Will this ever happen? You tell me. Maybe I’m giving the user too much credit. But I feel that most people know how to page through Google results until they find what they’re looking for. I feel that a lot of people can tell the difference between a reliable, well-researched web site, and something thrown together to promote a specific agenda. I mean sure, we all know that facts are facts, and once you’ve determined the reliability of a source, you know that it’s the TRUTH, right? So what are the facts about climate change? About abortion? Are human being descended from apes, or were they designed by a creator? Is marijuana a harmless drug, or can it irrevocably destroy your brain functions? The answers to all of these questions depend on which side of the political fence you stand, don’t they? In this day and age, it’s gotten to the point where people almost have to carefully pick through every single news item they read to determine its reliability. Is Barack Obama a secret Communist sleeper agent bent on destroying the America we all know and love, or is he the savior of the American dream? You probably don’t believe either of these things, but they might certainly affect the way you read a news article about him.
This dichotomy in our country is probably a terrible thing, but I feel like it’s creating a new type of library patron. People are more skeptical now. We analyze information carefully. The popularity of websites like Snopes, and of TV shows like Mythbusters, demonstrates that people crave this kind of truth-seeking information. Our field seems to have boomed in recent years, with MLIS programs churning out more graduates than we know what to do with. Everybody wants to be a librarian these days, because everybody knows how to find information!
I could be totally wrong about this. It’s possible that people are as dense as ever when it comes to information-seeking, and that we as librarians still need to serve as guides through the perilous jungles of modern library research. I hope I’m right about people, simply because I like to think that we’re evolving as a species. But I could be over-estimating people, right? Even though it would conceivably put me out of a job. 😦
So what should librarians do instead? I’m glad you asked. [grin]
In our last installment, I spoke about the most idealized concept of library research. I invoked the image of an avuncular old wizard delving through dungeons in search of information. I thought about stacks of books piled high, and Gandalf the Grey sitting there amongst ancient tomes, with a churchwarden pipe and cup of warm tea. This is what I think a library should be.
Now, I’m not saying that your small local library should allow pipe-smoking, and I don’t want any of you piling books in a scattered, byzantine fashion. But what if a library were more about the space than the books? What if a library were a place where people could go to … escape? I would love to open a privately-owned library, where people could pay a membership to just hang out. I’m imagining a library as created by the imagineers at DisneyWorld. Where it would be okay to sit for hours with a cup of tea and recline in full-backed antique chairs. The kind of place where you’d expect to see a wizard rummaging through old steamer trunks stocked with maps and charts. I want a Victorian library with great glass windows and a bust of Pallas over the door frame. I want there to be a coffee bar with a leviathan Steampunk cappuccino machine. Alternatively, I could imagine a library going the exact opposite way, with giant LCD screens and space-age ergonomic chairs. A cyber-library with alien architecture and leading edge computer systems with virtual reality banks and holographic projectors wired into the ceiling. I want going to a library to be an adventure, with marvels and mysteries around every turn.
Or … is that just a ridiculous adolescent fantasy with no possibility in the real world? 😦
Again, if there are always going to be libraries, (and really, I hope there are) there should always be a public library where someone can just go to use a computer or check out a book. But I feel that libraries should also be free to explore other options. I don’t want a library to look like every other public building I’ve ever seen, with the same chairs on the same carpet in front of the same computers. I want a library that makes me feel like I’m in a fantasy novel. The kind of library that isn’t competing with modern online search engines, because it’s an experience, rather than a resource. If every restaurant looked like a college cafeteria, most people would just stay home. But restaurants today invoke a mood. Modern restaurants have themes. I just want to apply that kind of spectacle to libraries as well.
Is that so wrong? 😦
So tell me what you think. That’s my latest in a long ling of completely hare-brained ideas. A library space that instills a sense of wonder and mystery, completely separate from the local library. Obviously there are problems with this concept, and I don’t personally have the kind of money to open up this kind of business, but I’m willing to hear criticism.** Some of you might feel that this kind of thing would cheapen our profession, but I don’t think it would. I’m thinking more EPCOT than Magic Kingdom here. 😉 It’s the kind of place that I’d love to spend my time. 🙂
What do you people think?
*Yes, I know it’s not technically FREE, but for the most part most people can send and receive e-mail without paying any kind of postage.
** Or, if any of you happen to know anyone that could finance this sort of thing … 😉
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