Monday, May 24, 2010

Why loving books isn't enough

Over the past few weeks, I have encountered a spectrum of opinions on the future of libraries and librarians.

Much to my surprise, many people newly entering the profession are doing so because “they love books.” Some have chosen the path of the librarian because of a love of knowledge. However, precious few entered the field because of the changes imminent in the library world.

Why, you may ask, am I surprised that so many people enter the world because of a love of the written word? After all, working in a library is every 14-year-old bookworms dream--to be surrounded by the quiet, but faithful friends, one’s favorite books. However, in 2010, this is a romantic ideal. The library still holds books but they are no longer the primary source for information. The internet is brimming with useful (and useless) information. A website can be updated instantly, whereas the information in a book can become outdated the minute it is published. Fiction and philosophy aside, books have lost their status as the primary medium of information.

Because of this shift, those who have chosen the library field because of their love of knowledge are better suited to the profession than those who profess a love of books. Books were, generally, safe information. That is, if a manuscript made it through the screening, editing, and printing stage, the information it contained had a high chance of being accurate. Obviously, this was not always the case, but 40 years ago, a librarian could hand a patron a book with relative confidence in the content without having read it prior. Now, since the internet has become a primary medium of information, a librarian must know how to determine accuracy and reliability of a source. Those who love knowledge have the motivation and drive to become information guides--people whose primary job is not to catalog information, but to determine its reliability.

Increasingly, however, this role as an information guide requires technological skills not currently taught in many information and library science institutions. In order to determine reliability, accuracy, and relevance, one must be able to investigate the source of the information as well as analyze the information itself. Sooner than many people realize, this skill will involve understanding basic coding. As the population becomes more dependent on computers for all media consumption, the language of computers will become increasingly important to librarians. While librarians may not need to write code fluently for a while (if ever), very soon they will need to be able to read code. Currently, only the nerdiest of librarians (yes, there are some librarians even nerdier than average) will be able to fill this role.

Digitally born information is the future of libraries and both librarians and the schools training them need to recognize this. The role of librarians as organizers of and guides to information resources will never become obsolete. However, unless the profession embraces technology and all its languages and components, librarians, as we know them, might become a thing of the past.

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