What is a librarian?

March 1, 2016

Law school blog 5There seems to be little argument that the stereotypical kind older matron with the white hair in a bun is no longer staffing the public library.  In addition, depending on your school district, you are less and less likely to see a public school with a full time librarian staffing the desk when your children come by for reading time.  It may even be true that Katherine Hepburn’s days in the classic film Desk Set depicting a corporate librarian are long gone.  Indeed, with the advent of the Internet and search engines such as Google, who needs a librarian?  I am here to tell you, you do.  You need a librarian, and mostly because you have no idea what a librarian does.

A colleague recently sent me a copy of the WSJ’s article, In Age of Google, Librarians Get Shelved.  While I generally enjoy a provocative editorial from the WSJ, I cannot fail to see how far off the mark this particular article fell.  In the Age of Google, librarians are needed more now than ever.  I am not here to proclaim that things must go on as they are.  I am here to tell you that you cannot go on without your librarian, and your librarian is your ticket to the future.  As my experience is focused in the legal arena, my comments and examples will draw from that industry.

law librarian resource centerLet’s set aside the fact that there is still a vast section of the population that does not know how to utilize the fantastic tools of the Internet, such as Google.  I am not just referring to those who are older in years.  My dear husband is terrified of technology.  He won’t admit it, but he conveniently can’t find any electronic device to Google even the most basic of questions when the need arises. I am his search engine.  Even a group text sends him into fits.  He is not alone.  While iPhones and Android phones are ubiquitous, it does not mean that everyone in our society knows how to research online.  And even more important to the seekers of accurate information, being published online does not make a fact true.  “I pulled this up on Wikipedia” might as well be, “I closed my eyes and threw a dart at the wall”.  I was recently asked to verify a piece of research material found online.  The truth was, there was absolutely no way to verify the material.  It came from a dubious website, and had no citations or any scholarly backing.  In fact, the only thing it did have were words stating exactly what the requestor was looking for.  Well if that isn’t the Bible truth, then I don’t know what is.

I return to my original question.  What is a librarian?   Some of the best librarians I have met and had the privilege of working with could be described with a few of the following characteristics:

  • Organized
  • An attention to detail
  • Naturally grouping and organizing like things
  • An inquisitive mind
  • The ability to break down problems
  • The ability to rely on a vast amount of knowledge to recall where information is located (in print, electronically, or real tangible matter.
  • A detective like mind, working to find each piece of the puzzle

A librarian researches, organizes and presents information.  A librarian is aware of their area of expertise.  As a legal librarian I work with the law, and more specifically I work with Labor and Employment law.  On my team the librarians understand the basics of Labor and Employment Law. They watch new developments and explore trends in our particular area of law and indeed in the practice of law.  This expertise allows them to provide our attorneys with excellent research distilled down to the information required to best respond to the clients’ need.

What about all of the administrative work that is done in a library?  Does it take a Master’s Degree to put a book on a shelf?  No, it does not and that is precisely why most institutions utilize para-professionals.  I dislike this term as it implies that a library assistant is not a professional, however; the term does indicate that the person in question has library skills and works in a library but does not have a MILS and does not perform high level research.  In my particular organization we use library assistants to do a host of tasks that help free up time for any number of professionals including our librarians and our attorneys.  Someone does have to open the invoices, shelve the books, manage IDs, maintain databases , manipulate spreadsheets, route the newsletters, and deliver requests for copies of court documents.  None of these tasks should be confused with the in depth specialized research performed by highly skilled librarians.  A librarian is not, and may I assert never has been the person who reads and checks out books.  True these tasks must be done, and often a librarian might have done them. But in that same vein an attorney uses the copier, answers the telephone, and knows how to make coffee in the office.  Does that make the attorney a clerk?

One might be tempted to ask, why can’t the attorneys (or any professional) do this research themselves?  Well they could, just like you can remodel your house by yourself.  The work will get done, but without the special skills needed. It will take longer, be lower quality, and in the end could cost you more than hiring a professional.  If you are an attorney in a large firm with a billing requirement and a cost conscious client, you certainly do not want to waste your time, firm resources, or the client’s money.

The Wall Street journal probably did get one thing correct.  That very kind white haired lady behind the reference desk at the public library is likely going to retire soon, and very likely she will not be replaced.  However, the state of public libraries and local government finances is light years away from the conclusion asserted in the article that all librarians are now useless.  Librarianship as a profession is not dead.  If anything, this is the best time to become a librarian.  Maybe we need to rename the librarian something more appropriate, such as Research and Information professional, to take away the stigma.  With the VAST amount of data and information flooding the Internet someone has to be available to sort it out, organize it, decipher truth from fiction, and get you a fully formatted client ready report before your noon meeting on Tuesday.  Good luck pulling that off using Google.