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Saving libraries but not librarians [Blowback]

November 3, 2011 |  4:58 pm

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Dan Terzian, a fellow at the legal clinic New Media Rights and a lecturer at the Peking University School of Transnational Law, responds to The Times' Oct. 26 Op-Ed article, "Libraries can't run themselves," on saving librarians' jobs. If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed and would like to participate in Blowback, here are our FAQs and submission policy.

The views expressed here are the author's own and do not represent those of the organizations he is affiliated with.

The digital revolution, while improving society, has gutted many professions. Machines have replaced assembly-line workers, ATMs have replaced bank tellers, Amazon has replaced bookstores and IBM's Watson may even replace doctors and lawyers. And now, the Internet is replacing librarians.

Or at least it should be.

The digital revolution has made many librarians obsolete. Historically, librarians exclusively provided many services: They organized information, guided others' research and advised community members. But now, librarians compete with the Internet and Google. Unlike libraries, the Internet's information is not bound by walls; from blogs and books to journals and laws, the Internet has them all. And Google makes this information easily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

All but the most heady research can be performed by a Google, Google Books or Google Scholar search. Have a question about whether you should be paid overtime? Just Google "overtime pay California" without quotes, and the first result is a California government website with an answer to your question. Even many college students' first -- and often last -- source for research is Google. Only after Googling fails would the students seek a librarian's guidance.   

The Internet can even advise community members. For example, Goodreads assists you in finding books to read, Penelope Trunk teaches you how to write a resume, the Berkeley Parents Network advises you how to raise teens, pre-teens and young adults. Whatever your question, you can find an answer through the Internet (and Google).

The digital revolution should spark library evolution. Libraries should bifurcate. Some, such as college libraries, should employ classically trained librarians -- those educated with librarian graduate degrees -- to safeguard historical materials and assist others' research. They would serve as a backup when people require more extensive research than the Internet can currently provide.

Other libraries, by contrast, need few -- if any -- classically trained librarians. Instead, their librarians may be made up of English or other liberal arts majors who yearn for the literary librarian lifestyle. These librarians won't safeguard historical texts, nor will they advise patrons on how to comprehensively research esoteric topics like the 13th century Yuan Dynasty. Instead, they will teach patrons basic research in the information age.

After the digital revolution, California's budget woes turned obsolete librarians into unemployed ones. But librarians are not alone in their suffering. Budget cuts have claimed many victims. University students suffer from ever-increasing fees, state and city employees lose retirement benefits, and teachers lose jobs. Countless other examples exist. Librarians must realize that they are not special; they too bear this burden.

But slashed budgets need not lead to libraries suffering. Libraries should innovate, just as the New York Public Library has. Facing multimillion-dollar budget cuts, the library does not flounder, it flourishes through innovation. Its digital strategy -- including e-publications, crowdsourcing projects and a user-friendly online library catalog -- has increased the number of its patrons. The strategy also helped accomplish the seemingly absurd: The library actually makes more money than it spends.

Other opportunities for innovation abound. The closing of big-box bookstores, for example, presents an opportunity to increase library attendance. Many bookstore customers don't actually buy books; they browse. They lounge in armchairs and read books off shelves -- maybe they even buy a cappuccino. As big-box bookstores close, where do these browsers turn? The answer should be the libraries.

Libraries should embrace the digital revolution, even though it entails the loss of librarians. The purpose of libraries -- the purpose of librarians -- is to spread knowledge. The growth of the Internet changes how we pursue this purpose. We no longer need librarians in the same way and in the same number as before. It's understandable why librarians bemoan this; nobody wants to see their profession fade into obscurity. But libraries do not serve the egos of librarians; they serve the people. And in the information age, serving the people requires evolving and innovating.

ALSO:

California must value librarians; libraries can't run themselves

West Hollywood's Standup Librarian isn't laughing

West Hollywood Library's new addition

-- Dan Terzian

Photo: A visitor to the new West Hollywood Library looks for a book. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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