Elegy for librarians: After all the budget cutting's done, who'll be around to help us ask the sharper questions?
If librarians seem distracted these days, you can't blame them. They're worried that they'll lose jobs. As cities, counties, public schools and universities all grapple with recessionary budget cuts, libraries look like low-hanging fruit. In this iEverything age, the thinking goes, books are musty relics. And without books, who needs librarians?
The truth is that we've never needed them more. Every day in this city, librarians do important jobs not strictly related to library science.
They teach senior citizens to use e-mail and show job seekers how to fill out on-line forms. They help middle-schoolers with math homework and urge high-schoolers not to trust everything they read on Wikipedia. They reserve rooms for community meetings. They set up displays. They arrange reading series. They keep cranky microfiche readers running. They read aloud to toddlers.
But as valuable as all those things are, what we need most right now is for librarians to do their core jobs: to serve as information professionals, a job that's harder now than ever before.
The infoverse has exploded. Data still comes in book form — and also in a bazillion other forms as well: among them, databases, online journals, architectural plans, maps, photos, microprints, CDs, DVDs, podcasts, posters, manuscripts, Tweets, musical scores, scripts, magazines, software and web sites.
Librarians make it possible to navigate wilderness.
They do the brute-force work of organization: bar-coding new acquisitions; putting books back on the right shelves; scanning and digitizing paper holdings; entering items into databases, where a search can reveal them.
Handed a difficult question, a good librarian happily hacks through the data jungle, sorting the good info from the bad, and procuring exactly the answer you wanted.
But great librarians do something even better: They help you ask a sharper question, then find the answer you didn't know you needed.
Maybe printed books will largely disappear in the next decade. But even so, we'll still need libraries - because we'll need librarians.