By Lisa Clancy, MSLS
We’re having a month-long celebration of the people who make our libraries run, who help us find the books we need, and who always know how to research topics for reports and term papers. In this 3-part series, we asked librarian extraordinaire Lisa Clancy to answer a few questions about what it is like to be a librarian in the age of the internet. Last week Lisa answered the question, “Are libraries still relevant?”. Today’s question is… Do we still need librarians if we have Google?
I’ll answer this with a truth and a secret.
All librarians have his famous quote needle-pointed on a pillow somewhere in their house: “Google will bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”
That’s what librarians do: we navigate a sea of information, a worldwide web of information, if you will, in search of the one right thread. Today’s information seekers—from a child looking for a story about the first trip to the dentist, to a teen looking for some reality to dispel the rumors, to a job hunter looking for that perfect resume template, to a parent looking for some fun activities for the whole family—will find that the most basic online search yields hundreds if not thousands of possibilities. We literally have TMI. Where to start? The first page of results? How many times have you clicked on the first search result without realizing it’s an ad? I show people this every week; people who would consider themselves savvy about TV ads and print ads, yet they still miss that little symbol or that subtle shading that indicates the first result (or 2 or 3) paid to be the first result you see.
Librarians know that if we are helping you search for someone online, quotes around the full name matter. This is just one of hundreds of search tips and tricks we have up our cardigan sleeves. And the best part? We’ll show them to you! We won’t try to keep our magic to ourselves. Our aim is to teach you, your kids, your parents, not because we don’t want to help you in the future, but we want to empower you. So that when all the public libraries are closed on Sunday night and your child’s report is due Monday morning, you aren’t struggling for hours in the worldwide web, but rather have a better chance of finding the right thread.
Librarians are trained to evaluate websites for things like accuracy, currency, and authority. Google and Bing and all those other search engines? Not so much. They’re in it for the money; we’re in it for the help.
Ok, so we know how to navigate Google. Does that mean librarians are necessary? Maybe you didn’t need the help of a librarian in the past year, or the past five years. But someone you know, someone you work with, someone you trusted your child or your parent with, someone whose path you crossed did need our help. Wouldn’t you like to know they got the right help?
Who can you trust?
How many times have you tried to figure out what that rash, that bump, that cough is using the internet? Do you know which medical information sites are hosted by research clinics, versus pharmaceutical companies, versus health magazines, versus someone’s aunt’s friend?
How did you choose which car you bought? How did you find the house you live in? How did you choose the daycare you entrust your child to? The front stoop, it-takes-a-village, we were all raised by the other mothers on the block days are gone. As consumers we need reliable, accurate, unbiased information we can understand. A librarian is your portal to that information. And we want you to have that information. We want you to make the best decision for yourself, armed with all the correct information we can find together.
People trust librarians beyond anything bartenders or confessors experience: I’ve been asked for my preferred tax software, what razor I bought my dad most often, which dentist I use, which brand of computer I use at home, what color I would want in my house of the 3 different chips a patron showed me, and what car I drive and why. (That is the tip of the personal questions iceberg, believe me!)
There are so many choices out there, for everything from tax software to razors to shades of white paint. People want some help in narrowing it down. Sure, they’d like a personal recommendation, but librarians can do better than that: they can give you the correct information so you can make the best choice for yourself. The truth is that Google makes it both easier and harder for us to do our jobs: easier, because there’s a wealth of information at our fingertips, harder because some will assume that because Google has thrown the gates of information wide open we are no longer needed as mysterious information gatekeepers. (I prefer the term tour guide.) Well, try searching for something and see what happens without some form of a guide: you’ll drown in information and ads and ads that look like information. From pre-schools to paint colors to book reports, librarians can weave the web into something that works for you!
And now a secret…
Now here’s my secret: Wikipedia isn’t all bad either. Sure, it’s crowd-sourced in a way, and a lot of entries have “needs additional verification” footnotes. But if you need a quick starting point, there’s nothing wrong with a quick Wikipedia review. If someone references some historic battle or little-known product or a Britney Spears song you’ve never heard of, well, I’m here to tell you it’s okay to go to Wikipedia for the broad strokes, the general overview. I know some librarians will disagree, but I have no problem admitting that I have used Wikipedia to get some key terms, names, dates, or basic chronology, before doing a deeper internet search for a patron, or even just for my own edification. Google and Wikipedia are tools, and librarians know how to wield them!
Lisa Clancy, MSLS, is the Adult Services and Reference Librarian at the William Jeanes Memorial Library in Lafayette Hill, PA. She received her B.A. from Haverford College, a Certificate of Publishing from New York University, and her Master of Science of Library Science from Clarion University. She worked in a bookstore in high school and college. After a career as an editor connecting writers to readers, she’s now working the other side of the equation. She still has every library card she ever owned. She has a list of desert island books, including a few for kindling. Yes, she does have a cat, wear glasses, and own a lot of cardigans. No, she is not a superhero. Yet.