Librarians: Bringing Order to Anarchy

(Disclaimer, yet another class assignment.)

Librarians: Bringing Order to Anarchy

I have a friend who thinks that “hysterical” librarians support secretive anarchy. The “secretive” part relates to the fact that so many librarians were up in arms about the Patriot Act, and is a topic for another day.  The other half, anarchy, couldn’t be farther from the truth. Anarchy is a state of lawlessness and disorder, and we so-called anarchical librarians are actually trying to bring order to the world and to the epitome of lawless and disordered, the Internet. I can see why some people consider the Internet to be a form of anarchy, for it’s comprised of the chaotic works of millions of individuals, the vast majority who are operating with little to no oversight. The user-created content online shapes the way information is created and disseminated.

Perhaps one of the best examples of the power of collective action online is 4chan’s infamous /b/ forums, the users of which banded together and bullied a pre-teen, known as Jessi Slaughter. More positively, and to some librarians’ dismay, Wikipedia and Google have become the digital information capitals as many people implicitly trust information from non-authoritative sources. Wikipedia is too easy for pranksters and ill-informed persons to edit, and not enough researchers know to follow the citations to the original and more reliable sources. Google search results are even more unreliable. For every dot edu and dot gov site, there are thousands (or more) of dot com sites with questionable information. Even intelligent people can easily get fooled and unwittingly email articles, such The Onion’s satirical story about young Harry Potter fans joining covens, to all of their friends and relatives, quoting it as fact. My mom, an intelligent person, was guilty of this and frequently forwarded unsubstantiated claims and “scare” stories of rapists and beggars. (Thankfully she eventually stopped after I researched and emailed correct information back to her every time I got one of those emails from her.)

What is the librarians’ role in all of this? Our mission really hasn’t changed; we still function as a clearinghouse, channeling the mass of resources into more manageable chunks of information for our library patrons. It’s the same song, but the second verse. We need to be a little bit louder, so we can help the public find “real information,” as the informational chaos gets a little bit worse. From the discussions in class, it seems obvious that librarians can’t be too gun-shy of technology, marketing, and the Internet. Otherwise, they will be viewed as irrelevant as the Betamax, lose support within their community, and as a consequence, lose financial support. On the other hand, libraries need to be careful not to see technology as the Holy Grail and put everything in one basket, as I fear Cushing Academy did. (David Abel of the Boston Globe wrote an excellent article about the academy, titled “Welcome to the library. Say goodbye to the books.”)

There needs to be a happy medium. Just like a well-planned stock portfolio, libraries need to build a diverse resource base. This base should comprise of at least three things: appropriate marketing for the community, a clear process of evaluating existing library collections and new technologies, and a continuing mission of teaching library users how to find meaningful information.

First, the marketing program’s goal should be to keep the library in the forefront of the community’s mind. Some traditional advertisement is okay, but for most libraries, the most effective way to market themselves is by creating and continuing an online conversation with their user base through social media. There are a number of libraries that use Twitter to promote events and share interesting facts about their collections and resources. Facebook is very popular, too; my former employer, Omaha Public Library, has built up a good presence through its Facebook page. The key to any form of social media is to respond to comments made by followers. No matter what, all questions should be answered, preferably quickly. Usually it’s a question about hours, available resources, with the occasional reference question. Comments, both positive and negative, generally deserve responses, too. The point is to let the community know that the library is responsive to their needs. A responsive library is a well-supported library.

Second, libraries should critically evaluate new technologies to figure out what is the best use of limited funds, and what will best serve the patrons. Digital resources should be balanced by physical resources, while maximizing points of access. This is why I believe that the Cushing Academy experiment, discarding numerous print books in favor of a few electronic readers, will probably fail—the 18 e-readers they purchased effectively limits the access points to only 18 students. That’s a far cry from the numerous access point permutations available with a large collection of books. The administrators said that the reason they switched to Kindles and Sony Readers was because only a few books were checked out at any given time.

My response to that is that they should have evaluated their physical holdings first, before going mostly digital. They should have adjusted their acquisition plans accordingly, and added the e-readers as only a supplement, as the majority of libraries are doing. This hedges the libraries’ bets against future technological changes.

Finally, librarians should continue teaching their patrons how to properly use technology to find authoritative information. It’s one thing having great digital databases and resources available, and it’s another thing for people to actually know how to make use of these resources. In the past, librarians have helped patrons find books relevant to their interests. Now, not only are librarians are helping patrons find books, journal and news articles, CDs, and DVDs, they’re teaching people how to use computers and other electronic devices, navigate the Internet, conduct effective searches, and sort through the results for relevant authoritative information. That’s a tall order, which I believe librarians are working very hard to accomplish.

Contrary to claims that technology will make libraries obsolete, I think it will actually increase the need for librarians. From my work experience, I notice that for every technology-savvy patron, there are at least two or three people who approach library staff for help in figuring out how to use computers. They want to learn how to access digital resources and use the tools available online.

Libraries are nowhere near dead. They’re not even dying. With a focus on these three issues—marketing, collection evaluations, and technology education programs—libraries will remain relevant and responsive to the communities’ needs. People, in return, will provide strong community and financial support to help us anarchy-loving librarians impose order on the rapidly proliferating mass of information that is now available to everybody.

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