A column in last week’s Philadelphia Inquirer about how libraries’ “experts on call” – presumably, reference librarians – were a dying breed.
The last time the columnist visited the the information center at the Free Library (1991!), there were 14 librarians. Now “one full-fledged Know-It-All left…backed up now by nine less-seasoned librarian assistants.” It’s amazing what 21 years will do to a place.
That’s a pretty drastic drop, but probably not too much more than other libraries with once booming reference staffs. The reason, as we all know, is because the Internet killed ready reference.
Now, most of the questions for the know-it-alls are about technology and tech support, and that’s when we get to the interesting part of the column. Here’s the final paragraph:
To keep up, Morse [the full-fledged Know-It-All] has had to become a gadget guru. “I just bought my young niece a Kindle. When iPad2 came out, I got one. I’m on my second e-reader. I can’t help people unless I know these things myself.”
That paragraph signals two things to me: the dedication of reference librarians to helping library patrons and the lack of support they’re getting. This librarian buys her own tech gadgets so she can use them and understand them enough to help people she’s paid to help. So the library pays for the help, but not the tools necessary to learn how to do it.
This seems pretty common from what I’ve heard, and there aren’t good cheap solutions to it. The question is whether librarians can support or train people regarding tech gadgets without having a strong familiarity with those gadgets themselves. I vote “no” on that one, along with the librarian in the article. But how do they get this knowledge?
In the most common solution I’ve read about, a library will buy a supply of these gadgets and put them somewhere the staff can play around with them. Throw in a Kindle, a Nook, and an iPad. For the ambitious libraries, maybe a digital camera, camcorder, and a couple of smartphones.
This seems like a pretty weak solution if what you want is intimate familiarity, the kind of familiarity that reference librarians have traditionally had with information sources, both in print and then online. A reference librarian who doesn’t know the ins and outs of print indexes or online databases would be pretty bad.
But what about librarians who don’t know the ins and outs of tablets and smartphones with various operating systems? How are they supposed to get this familiarity? Apparently, by buying the stuff themselves.
If this is stuff librarians need to do their jobs effectively, then why aren’t the libraries buying librarians all their gadgets? Every reference librarian, and even “less-seasoned librarian assistants” should be given a Kindle, a Nook, an iPad and iPhone, and an Android tablet and phone.
Or we could break this down. There could be Apple Librarians and Android Librarians, and they could compete against each other in bookcart drills.
I’m not sure who should get the Kindle or the Nook, so everyone should be given one of each depending on their choice.
This isn’t the kind of spending libraries want to undertake or can even afford, but that’s the sort of spending they should be doing if they really want to adapt to the technological future. Librarians often claim that info technology like this is growing more all the time, and yet libraries haven’t really caught up.
Thus, just like librarians now usually have desktop computers or maybe a laptop, they should also be have tablets, smartphones, and ebook readers from the library.
I could be wrong. I don’t know of any libraries that issue tablets, smartphones, and ebook readers to all their public services staff. Are there any ? Does it make a difference?