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Librarians are Doomed Again

The Internet loves articles about how libraries are doomed now that the Internet is around. We’re now well into the second decade of such articles, and I’m surprised there are any libraries left to be doomed.

Usually those articles come from people who know absolutely nothing about libraries and haven’t set foot in a public library decades. Every once in awhile, though, a librarian will chime in. The latest is from the Wall Street Journal, which for some reason doesn’t surprise me.

Even if you ignore the stupid headline about librarians being “shelved,” which is clearly the work of a bored editor rather than the author, there are still some problems.

The first problem is the rosy version of the past that is somehow taken for truth. For example, the belief that in the past, “Those of us who attended library schools underwent rigorous preparation.”

Rigorous preparation? I guess he went to a different library school than me and every other librarian I’ve ever talked to.

The rigor consisted of “assignments that forced us to become familiar with the reference books and research tools that filled the university library.” Iif back in the day students studied nothing but reference, then that’s probably what you spent all your time on, but let’s not kid ourselves. That’s not very rigorous, although it could be very boring.

Supposedly, now that the Internet is around, the “library user who used to rely on a librarian for help can now Google his question and find more data in a few seconds than a librarian was able to locate in hours of research.”

That would depend on the query, but yes, ready reference is dead. Drunken patrons no longer call to settle bar bets; that’s what Google is for. If your information needs can be satisfied by information not behind a paywall, the Internet is a beautiful place. But those paywalls still exist as far as I can tell, so if you need more you’ll have to use libraries.

If you don’t believe librarians are a “dying breed,” you might want some proof of that.

You want evidence? “The erosion of the MLS degree has been mirrored by the disappearance of library schools from American universities.” Then we find out about four universities that closed their library schools over twenty years ago.

There’s probably some connection between four library schools closing before the age of the Internet and the Internet eliminating the need for librarians, but I’m not seeing it. Until then, I’m going to assume that the Internet had nothing to do with library schools closing in the early 1990s.

You still need more proof? What are you, some sort of skeptic?

How about some anecdotal evidence. For example, a librarian in New Mexico recently told the author, “I spend most of my time making change and showing people how to print from the computer or use the copier. I sure don’t get the reference questions like I used to.”

But wait, there’s more! Another librarian said, “If I didn’t spend my time helping people look for lost keys, wallets, jackets, sweaters, gloves, backpacks, cellphones and laptops, I’m not sure I’d even have a job.”

Okay, that’s two public librarians who clearly aren’t necessary to their libraries, because just about anyone can use copiers and find lost keys. I also have to wonder about what kind of library attracts patrons who are constantly losing keys and laptops, but that’s another issue.

But are the anecdotal experiences of these two librarians indications that librarians aren’t as necessary as they used to be? Or…and I’m just spitballing here…might it only be evidence that those particular librarians have decided to bide their times until retirement rather than figure out a way to use their intelligence and skills to benefit their library? It’s a possibility.

If I want to draw big sweeping conclusions from those two quotes, maybe they mean that librarianship attracted a different type of person back in the day than now, a type of person lacking in entrepreneurial gumption or some such. Librarians like that don’t make it these days because they rarely get jobs.

The “bright spot” is that some public libraries are hiring “tech-savvy young people with community-college degrees and plans for information-technology careers” to help out with tech support stuff. I guess the older librarians are too busy helping people find their keys to learn how to use these newfangled computer machines that librarians have been using for decades.

After several paragraphs of doom and gloom, the author concludes that in a century librarians will still be around “in one form or another,” because despite the supposed “inevitability” of the trend to eliminate librarians, people still need the sort of help librarians provide.

Maybe it’s wiser just to acknowledge that librarianship is always changing, libraries have always been besieged, and librarians have always kept doing what they do and trying to help people. It’s not a very exciting story, and it won’t get as many clicks as “LIBRARIANS ARE DOOMED,” but it’s probably closer to the truth than most stories we tell about libraries.

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Comments

  1. Frumious Bandersnatch says:

    I’m so tired of being doomed by the Interwebs… Do you think other professions have this problem? I wonder if Doctors are doomed because everyone can just use Google to find out that a tummy ache means they have Crohn’s Disease, or that Hydrogen Peroxide will cure cancer?

    • WebMD is the worst for hypochondriacs like me. You won’t believe how many types of cancer I’ve had.

    • We should start a movement of librarians who pseudonymously moonlight as reporters fighting back against the media who constantly writes of our downfall by publishing our own articles about the death of media organizations. We can compare reading the newspaper to the easily digestible tidbits found on BuzzFeed and hit them over the head with their declining readership statistics and quotes like “why read a newspaper when you can Google up any old blog post that is going to be more fun to read?”

    • I shared this article in several library circles online and among classmates. I received maybe 2 or 3 responses? The overwhelming majority were silent.

      That.
      Right there.
      Is the problem.

      For reasons that can comprise an entirely other discussion, a significant portion of the LIS field is comprised of individuals who prefer to keep to themselves and not engage in any potentially contentious discussion.

      It’s understandable that we’re all jaded by the number of Chicken Littles running around descrying the inevitable destruction of our professions and institutions, but when we fail to offer an opposing, factual argument-slash-narrative to counter that recurring nonsense, of course the public accepts their statements as fact. *FTR, clever, insider snark without substance does not qualify .

      If we don’t speak up, we have only ourselves to blame.

    • Is it possible they didn’t reply because they couldn’t read it, because it’s behind a paywall?

  2. Newspapers are dead. The Wall Street Journal is dead as a print resource — they just don’t know it yet. Misery loves company. Real or imagined.

  3. Sassiecass says:

    I love how I can’t actually access the full article without a WSJ subscription. I’ll borrow it from my library.

  4. I was hoping that you’d comment on that article, I saw it and thought it was particularly stupid.

  5. Some very light research (librarian skillz) reveals that the author’s article has a library degree and teaches computer classes at his library. So he’s just throwing his profession under the bus for funsies? His fb profile is also not locked down at all, and he doesn’t know how to spell Daycare, so I doubly lament how much attention this article is getting since he’s clearly not one of our best and brightest.

    • Gah, article’s author.

    • anonymous coward says:

      My guess is he’s burnt out in a large system full of people who won’t retire/innovate (according to him) and he feels- maybe rightfully so- that the debt he incurred getting his MLS makes the MLS seem like a scam. I mean, how many of us DON’T, deep down when we’re not lying to ourselves, feel like our MLS degree was a pay to play/union membership dues?

      It’s also the thinking of someone who isn’t in a position to see the big picture.

    • crankypants says:

      grumpy old white guy – being a hater here!

  6. All my mates in library school called our quest for an MLS not a degree, but a green card.

  7. Yeah, we “oldies” (although we’re younger than “leadership”) have to spend our time unjamming printers and looking for keys – and then we’re told we can’t deal with change and aren’t tech-savvy and all that stuff we don’t have time to do isn’t necessary after all (because we haven’t had the time, so busy are we with equipment), so they bring in a bunch of youngsters who won’t be looking for keys b/c they are so “tech savvy”.

    Gaaaaaah.

  8. crankypants says:

    Cranky old white guy.

  9. Joyce Burns says:

    Any comment on the new Occupational Handbook projection for Librarian growth of 2%..down from 7% several years ago…I don’t think we need any more library programs…we need to employ those who got the degree and wonder why am I not employed as a librarian ..or why can’t I get that full time library job..And please no attacks on the horrible new graduates..how about the lack of truth from the profession as to the likelihood of getting employment…

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