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Librarians not endangered species?

by Joy Graham, Head Reference Services


Larry Page has said that his “Google” search engine will develop into an electronic super librarian and be able to answer questions instantly through its online access to all the world’s knowledge. Sounds fairly grandiose, but because of Google’s size, growth rate, and number of searches performed each day (150 million), it’s a possibility worth considering.

Click on image for larger view


Also worth considering is the interesting fact that although librarians are generally perceived to be on their way out, librarians themselves do not feel this way. Why not? Are we ostriches, or do we know something that we’re not saying, or at least saying very loudly or very effectively?


We know that technology is a means, not an end. It’s just another tool, albeit a very effective tool, to help us do the job we’ve always done. Technology enables us to do it better and faster.


Every day, librarians help people who need assistance dealing with information effectively. They need help to plan a search strategy, to know where to start looking, to use the features built into the search software, to evaluate the results of the search, to apply it to what they’re working on, and to assess how to do it better the next time.


The concept is called “information literacy”, and it’s a skill set that is crucial now and will become increasingly important to academic success and daily life in the future.

I’m old enough to have been in the profession during the early days of the electronic era. It was 1978 when I first heard the now familiar high-pitched connect tone. I was connecting interactively with the National Library of Medicine’s medical literature database in Bethesda, Md., using a dumb terminal, a teletype machine located in the basement office of the hospital where I worked. The purchasing department had been using the machine to order supplies electronically, and I’d gotten permission to give it a whirl.

I’ll never forget the first time because it seemed like a miracle. I felt like Alexander Graham Bell. I recognized what a powerful tool it was and that I would never (well, almost never) have to search the print Index Medicus again. I knew this was a true revolution in information access that would save hours of time and enable me to search with a precision never before possible.

That was 25 years ago, and in the intervening years, technology has made possible digital feats that I could not have conceived of then. Twenty-five years from now, I’m sure the profession will be remarking on the primitive state of today’s technology.

We have come a long way, but despite Google’s claims, answers are rarely instant and effective research skills are not intuitive. Although artificial intelligence is gaining ground, Google and other search engines are still oblivious to contextual differences, variations in word meanings, and metaphorical expressions that human intelligence picks up on easily.

Sorry, Larry, the fact is that Googling is just the first step. It’s what happens between the initial Google and the ultimate application and evaluation of the information that keeps us librarians off the endngered species list.



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