The librarian’s job

Library action figure with real shushing motion. Modeled on a respected librarian with a good sense of humor!

According to an old stereotype, a librarian is a socially awkward woman with bad hair who checks out books to some people and tells others to be quiet. Librarians have fairly successfully battled that stereotype. At least no one assumes that a librarian has to be unattractive, incapable of having fun, or even a woman. But as long as people still think of a library as just a warehouse for books, people will misunderstand the job of a librarian. Just as a library is much more than a warehouse, a librarian is much more than a clerk who works in a library instead of a store.

Before the Internet age, even before the invention of the printing press, librarians kept track not only of the books in their own library, but books held by other librarians that their patrons might want to consult. Describing a book so someone else can tell if it suits their needs can be surprisingly difficult.

For one example, if an author is know by more than one name (as an early example, a Latin form or vernacular form, or having a full name on one document and only initials on another), how can everything that person wrote be kept together? And if he has a common name, how his writings be distinguished from anyone else’s? Little by little , librarians developed rules to deal with those difficulties so they could compile adequate catalogs of their holding. To use a modern buzz word, the catalogs comprised metadata– data about data.

Nowadays, with so much information available via computer or even newer electronic gadget, people are starting to question the need for libraries. They don’t realize that librarians pioneered electronic information in the first place. In fact, the very first electronic metadata system was invented by a librarian at the Library of Congress. A catalog is not only metadata, it is also a kind of database. Keeping track of all the articles that appear in magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals requires a different kind of database, which librarians invented and as quickly as possible made available by computer.

Not all books–or other print materials or sound recordings or videos, etc. that preexist the Internet–are available on line. Nor is there any likelihood that they all will be any time in the foreseeable future. What’s more, not everything online is free and available to search engines. Vast amounts of the most reliable information exists only on databases that cost thousands of dollars in annual subscriptions–so much that only libraries can afford them.

So who is a librarian? First a data hound. Librarians have been hunting and gathering information for centuries. They have collected all the latest technologies while preserving older materials and have described all of it in order to help other people locate what they want or need. (I use information broadly, because of course, people are as likely to read or listen or watch for entertainment as to learn anything.)

Second, a librarian is a guide through the burgeoning jungle of information and information technology. If you need a book, the librarian will find it for you. If you need a government document, statistics, the latest research on nanotechnology, answers to a particular question, or something to read (listen to, or watch) for sheer enjoyment, the librarian will find it for you. In fact, if everything you need is freely available on Google, a librarian will find more of it, and faster, than you can find yourself.

Third, a librarian will help you not only search, but evaluate whatever you find and choose what is most suitable for your needs. After all, not everything you can find in print or online is true, reliable, or trustworthy. Not everything is well written (or well performed, or well whatever else).  And not everything that is excellent necessarily fits your needs.

Fourth, a librarian works in a library, which is a place where you can not only find and use information yourself, but also collaborate with others. The library owns expensive equipment and software so you and your collaborators do not have to buy it. And even if everyone in your group owns, say PowerPoint, or your project doesn’t require any kind of advanced technology, the library has meeting rooms where you can work together. Librarians will check one out to you and show you how to use whatever equipment it has.

Hmm. We’ve gone from checking out books to checking out meeting rooms and expensive equipment. But at least we don’t expect that the helpful librarian has bad hair and an aversion to conversation!

Photo credit:
© Gwen’s River City Images

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