I wandered into the State Library of Western Australia a few days ago, and it set my grey cell into thinking about how libraries and librarians function in today’s world.
This is against the backdrop being told “Hush!” in a loud whisper in libraries as a child, and even today the Reading Room at the British Library may still be a “silent zone”.
Libraries in the Information Age
Libraries have always been about information, be it fact or fiction. The Dewey Decimal Classification is a wonderful way of organising the books containing that information. Today we have search engines, and we can access information in less than one second, which is less time than it takes to pull down a book from a shelf and open it. From that, we might conclude that libraries and librarians have no further place in today’s world. However, I would argue the opposite.
An Historical Perspective
Changes in technology lead to changes in the way that society operates. Examples of the stage coach and 35mm film come to mind: the stage coach companies fought for their lives when the railways arrived, and 35mm film has given way to digital cameras. Yes there are still stage coaches and 35mm film, but these are now specialised markets. But not all changes in technology necessary lead to the abandonment of an earlier technology. Those of us with memories long enough will remember the days when cinemas were all complaining about the arrival of television being their death knell.
For a more balanced view, I would argue when a new technology comes along, society takes advantage of the best of both technologies, and that the older technology can also adapt. The old “flea pit” has evolved into today’s IMAX cinema while we also have video-on-demand via the Internet.
The Library of Today
Libraries have evolved. Even my local library, serving a population of only a few thousand, has computers that visitors can use to access the Internet. I also make book requests via e-mail; this a norm with my local library, even though my child within finds this rather peculiar.
Librarians, as a breed, are still concerned about locating resources for people – it is part of their vocation. I see this every time I walk into a library. They know all the ins and outs of things like inter-library loan – my local library is now used to me asking for titles that are not available even at the State Library.
There is also the questions of the quality of the information that is available. The Internet is a wonderful resource for finding information, but it is not always accurate. Until very recently, it could be difficult to track down peer-reviewed academic papers. While misinformation on the Internet can be merely annoying, it has the potential to be dangerous or even life-threatening if you are looking for answers to medical questions, for example.
In cases like that, ask your librarian for sources of background information, and then use that information to better understand what your doctor tells you.
Are librarians a thing of the past? No. Society still needs them, and we should value them more.