Sea of Noise

Tue, 21 Sep 2004

Open Source Systems for Libraries

Open Source Software and libraries have always seemed like a natural match to me. It turns out, I'm not alone. [via Jessamyn]

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Fri, 16 Jul 2004

Virtual Reference and the Extinct Librarian

Rochelle Mazar made some interesting comments in response to "To Chat Or Not To Chat", an article about virtual reference desk software and the decline in reference desk queries.

As Mazar observes, it's not an antipathy toward chat that's keeping the public from swamping library reference desks, virtual or otherwise, with questions. By and large, folks just don't know that librarians are professionals who can offer them anything beyond what they'd get from a casual search at Google. I would go even further and add that, while they are many qualified professionals at libraries, it's not clear that folks are wrong in seeing libraries as no longer at the forefront of the information revolution.

Twenty, or even fifteen, years ago, librarians were the gatekeepers to the world's information for most of us. This was doubly-true of the walled-off kingdom behind the library reference desk, where materials were too valuable and expensive even to circulate. Most librarians were professionals eager to help their patrons, but that's not why we went to the library. As with Willie Sutton and banks, we went there because that's where the information was.

A decade ago, this was already changing for those of us who had made the investment is learning to use the Internet, dial-up BBSes, and online information retrieval systems. At that time, I remember, Karen Coyle's "Access: Not Just Wires" laid out the desiderata for the continued relevance of librarians. She understood then that the so-called Information Superhighway was only going to solve the problem of physical (or virtual) access to information; it would not make knowledge more accessible.

But in 1994, and for years thereafter, my attempts to interest local librarians in these issues were met with blank stares. Librarians may have been skilled at the arcana of accessing information through books and microfiche, but by and large they weren't particularly computer literate, much less interested in exploring the nascent world of online access to information. Making their card catalog available online was their idea of "cutting edge". That, of course, completely missed the point.

Fast forward to 2004. I'm pretty unusual in that I have about 1,000 dead tree type books piled about my home. But every one of us has access to 10,000 books online thanks to Project Gutenberg alone! And, while Google searches certainly benefit from some advanced knowledge, it's easy enough for the average person to get some kind of answer from their search engine of choice. Why would we ask a librarian?

The answer, of course, is that "information is not knowledge". We could be getting the wrong answers, or even asking the wrong questions.

The librarians whose authority derived from standing between the public and a limited supply of information have gone the way of the dinosaur. They deserve to go extinct, or at least be retired to a nice dinosaur pasture. Getting them out of the way of the true professionals who have something to offer us would be a service.

I wonder, though, whether libraries aren't already turning into dinosaur pastures? Maybe the knowledge professionals who can keep us from drowning as we drink from the information firehose that is the Internet will have to go somewhere else, and call themselves something else, to succeed.

I hope not. My best friend just earned her MLS, and she's the kind of person who could help with the monumental task of organizing, accessing, and understanding the massive amount of information at our disposal. But it's been years since I asked a question at a library reference desk, and I'm sure I'm not alone...

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