Home » Libraries » In Age of Google, Librarians Get Shelved

In Age of Google, Librarians Get Shelved

11 January 2016

From The Wall Street Journal:

The next time you visit a public library and see an older person at the information desk, someone near retirement age, take a good look. You may be seeing the last of a dying breed, the professional librarian.

Years ago, a librarian was someone who held a master’s degree in library science (MLS) issued by a graduate program accredited by the American Library Association. Those of us who attended library schools underwent rigorous preparation, usually assignments that forced us to become familiar with the reference books and research tools that filled the university library.

The Internet changed all that. The library user who used to rely on a librarian for help can now Google his question and find more data in a few seconds than a librarian was able to locate in hours of research.

Many people who work as librarians no longer hold an MLS degree. Public libraries have created a new position called “library associate”—college graduates who do the same work as librarians but receive lower salaries than their MLS counterparts.

The erosion of the MLS degree has been mirrored by the disappearance of library schools from American universities. The University of Chicago and Columbia University once offered the best librarian training programs in the country; both institutions closed their library schools in the early 1990s.

. . . .

The mood among some librarians is pessimistic. A New Mexico librarian recently told me: “I spend most of my time making change and showing people how to print from the computer or use the copier. I sure don’t get the reference questions like I used to.”

A colleague in the Washington, D.C., area expressed similar views: “If I didn’t spend my time helping people look for lost keys, wallets, jackets, sweaters, gloves, backpacks, cellphones and laptops, I’m not sure I’d even have a job.”

. . . .

One bright spot: Some public libraries have created jobs for “technology assistants,” positions filled by tech-savvy young people with community-college degrees and plans for information-technology careers.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)


32 Comments to “In Age of Google, Librarians Get Shelved”

  1. A bit excessive on the doom and gloom, I think. Yes libraries and the role of librarians are changing. My local library has rearranged things so there is a bank of computers beside the reference desk. Those computers are marked “for research use”. The reference librarians help patrons find relevant and reliable information on the internet the same way they used to help them find info in shelves of reference texts.

    How is the internet to blame for libraries hiring less qualified people at lower wages? Happens all the time in all sorts of industries. Has been happening for years and years and years.

    If The University of Chicago and Columbia University shut down their library schools in the early 1990s, it wasn’t because the internet made trained librarians obsolete. The early 1990s are pretty much pre-internet in terms of ubiquitous access and easily available information. Early 1990s self-service internet was not competitive with reference librarians.

    Most of what people look up on the internet they never would have bothered looking up before. There is still a role for reference librarians in curating online information and helping people access helpful information online. A greater role as there is so so much more information readily available than ever before. Librarians are guides to information. The internet is a much larger wildland of information with fewer and less defined tracks than the old reference shelves. Librarians are more necessary as guides now. If they are being shelved in favour of self service kiosks, it’s because the libraries are cutting costs and librarians as a group are not effectively pushing themselves as information retrieval experts.

    • Yeah, in 1991 I had internet through my university and ISP’s were just starting to be up and running in the city I lived in. I can’t imagine that had much of an impact on librarian programs.

      • Mosaic came out in 1993 and was the first large scale use of the http protocol. Even then, there wasn’t much in the way of real research. It was primarily geeky pursuits. I think it was a couple of years after that until we had any sort of web index (the old yahoo) much less reliable comprehensive searching.

        The author of the article also seems oblivious to the internet panic that gripped academia and the mainstream media. All the information on the internet was false. Every bit of it. Nobody could rely on it. Cats and dogs living together and so on.

        • thanks for the reminder Kat. And the laugh. It was the same with HIV in similar time period, as with Internet. The fearmongers were hard at work on several fronts;

          • Fearmongers are always active; it is the second most reliable way to get elected to public office.

            What changes decade to decade it the subject of the fearmongering; missile gaps, overpopulation, digital divide, global trade, global warming, liberals, republicans…

  2. Gordon,

    Your comment adds texture and nuance to some of the article’s assertions. Much of what is presented as journalism is really infotainment. Some of the “best” publications aren’t immune to this type of drivel.

  3. They’re not getting ‘shelved’, they’re evolving … just like all the other professions the interwebz has impacted.

  4. As for that “new position” — I was hired as a Library Associate in August 1980. You know, in that long-ago era when the Wall Street Journal actually fact-checked their articles.

  5. *If they are being shelved in favour of self service kiosks, it’s because the libraries are cutting costs and librarians as a group are not effectively pushing themselves as information retrieval experts.*

    This comment from Gordon Horne nailed it. Had the WSJ delved into the last 10 years of public library budgets, I think the story would have come clear.

    The article is just the public gloss that library administrators try to put on what is essentially a budgetary decision (necessary or not) to hire less proficiency… because it’s one of their least contentious cost-cutting options.

    • Here, in the big city 60 miles over, the chief librarian is like in one way, a lobbyist. They have to go plead often for funds. They may have some sayso about how to spend what they get, but the big action is at the state and city governance level, not the librarians or the librarian admin. It is usually the legislature or the city council that decides the budget for the library [depending whether state public or local public], with, depending on how engaged the library users are, who may show up to plead/protest at the governing body.

      The number of ‘public amenities’ that have been cut by various councils and legislators is not often because librarians are whatever. It is to try to balance, cover imo extreme mismangement of city/ state budgets for decades… which, if looked at carefully show absurd amounts of robbing peter to pay paul, but also larded with neglect of replacement and repair of public thoroughfares, bridges, tracks, and including underfunding pensions, and more. The larger messes cause the smaller crashes. I wonder how many citizens actually read the complete line-item budgets of their towns , how many of the elected and appointed ‘deciders’ whose decisions affect the often unknowing public. I think if one did read the full budget, what is underfunded, what is over-favored, what ‘favs’ of certain governing persons are supporting, what is completely left out, for there is often no lobby or little of it for the very poor and wandering …it would open eyes.

      In the small towns here, there is no big budget that can bury the facts or favor one or another of someone’s favs, at least not without near 2nd shootout at the ‘not ok’ corral. Libraries are often a room in the post office, or church or gradeschool and sometimes someone’s home, watched over by volunteers that might or might not have a high school diploma and all their teeth.

      But they are kindly and will help kids and adults find to the best of their ability what they are looking for. But then too, we have rural electric, those of you know what that is who live in the boonies… and reliable computer access is unreliable.

      But people like to sit around and kick back in the old chairs at the fireplace and talk a little, or read quietly. One of the best I’ve seen during winter, is Story Hour for Elders. Wherein a person reads a great adventure book aloud each week for a few chapters, to the grands. And their grandkids. Who often in rhythm of words, and warmth of fire, fall asleep in their grandparent’s arms.

      Not sure how to put that in a library budget.

      But I hope to put it in a children’s book soon as I can figure out how to get better than stick figures coming out of my writing hand. lol

    • Here, not librarians create budget, rather the City Council or the State legislators. The libraries’ admins come beg, plead before the powers that be to not again cut their budgets. The cuts are often, far too often because of decades of mismanagement of city/state budgets with shortfalls for pension plans, robbing peter to pay paul, leaving many out in the cold in order to cover fav projects, paybacks. Like many say, you dont want to see sausage being made, or govt up close, neither.

      The admins often come back with tails between legs, and have to do a tedious time/demand assessment. Out go first the positions the public uses least. Not because they are not valued by the library admins, but they havent the money to meet low demand services as long as they are, year after year, often gutted more and more by the body that holds [but apparently never thoroughly reads the thousand paged line itemed current and projected budgets] the purse.

      The state of funding the ‘people’s public’ anything in many towns and cities, including public utilities, roadways, educ, libraries and more, is often appalling in shortsightedness, and also spending like a drunken sailor on ill advised projects that are not infrastructure and community supportive, first. If you take a look at legal fees alone, or payments by city for malfeasance or injury…. you could build another ten libraries in each city, a few new schools and a horse racetrack.

  6. In the Age of Google, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles are getting “shelved,” as well. In pre-Google years, I remember many phone calls from adult progeny asking things like, “How do I…” and “Where should I go…” and “What can I do about…” and “When is the best time to…” and “Who can tell me…” and etc.

    There aren’t nearly as many interesting conversations these days, and there is a distinctly sad feeling (on my part) of irrelevant redundancy and awkward obsolescence.

    • And we can no longer spend hours in the pub arguing about inconsequential facts. If someone has a smart phone they can Google it and end the debate immediately. If we want the discussion to last out a pint, we need to get philosophical.

      • @Gordon Horne,

        If we want the discussion to last out a pint, we need to get philosophical.

        Interesting. You must run with a much more intellectual crowd than I. Football (round ball) sparks arguments that last a couple of pints; through dinner; and into the port, cheese, and nuts. And often into the parking lot (car park) where things are decided with greater visceral satisfaction.

        • LOL! I was having lunch at the bar in a TGIF last week and there were a couple of guys arguing about which Chicago team Manny Ramirez played for. One said that he played for the White Sox, the other swore he played for the Cubs. (I couldn’t help overhearing, and I knew that he played for the White Sox for part of a season, and was hired by the Cubs as a hitting instructor at triple A level.)

          Could have been solved by the smart phone. But one of them must have seen me smiling, and asked me directly. I told them what I knew (the guy who asked me was the guy who had the right answer so he was happy!). The other guy finally jumped on his phone and got the answer. (which agreed with what I told them.) The discussion (for them) lasted for about a tallboy beer. For me it pulled me right out of my Robert Crais read.

  7. Maybe my grown daughters are old fashioned. They still ask me “What How Where” questions. All the time. It’s amazing how smart I’ve become in the years since they each turned 20.

    • Same here! These days I even get calls to help with second grade (Common Core) math homework!

      • cool Josie. Those you help will likely remember your kindness for life. Many of us oldtimers remember the librarians from long ago. They were a breed apart and we felt they hung the moon so smart were they.

    • with you Deb. The grown kids and the grands have no end of questions. But too, we often ask the young many questions about how to do such and such too. Not just our own, but anyone younger than us [which nowadays in our seventies, is not hard to find, lol] It is a nice way to be family to share knowings. I suppose you could learn how to call the ducks online, or fill your hands with butterflies by rubbing on the secret ingredient. But it’s better to go off into the sunrise together, talking it all over and showing how to, laughing together, and with a hand on shoulder now and then. And maybe most of all, seeing the happiness to learn, in others’ eyes.

  8. I am a rural library trustee. We circulate around a million books per month, so we are small, but not negligible, with 9 branches. We have consolidated all our reference librarians at a single branch. Reference questions in the other eight branches are answered by phone or web. We did this a few years ago because reference questions have dwindled to the point that we could not justify even part-time reference librarians at any one of our branches. Our consolidated reference desk is under-used, and the number of questions seems to go down every month. I am not sure there is even a place for curating on-line reference.

    We do a lot of computer instruction. Classes almost daily and all our people have at least minimal training in helping our patrons with computer problems.

    Reference librarians may be nearing obsolescence but we still have many places for MLSs. For example, we take youth literacy seriously. We have highly trained librarians to design and manage our children and youth programs, which begin in the obstetrics ward. MLSs are also important in acquisitions. There is also reader advisory– not reference, but helping patrons find books they want to read; to lead people to good books that are not publicized best sellers. MLSs are also trained in library administration, which is not trivial, and we need their skills.

    I am not sure I buy all of the dwindling budget argument. We made the decision to consolidate our reference desk and reassign some MLSs because the service was not being used. If it were being used, we would have found other ways to cut. Budgets are dwindling and we are always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of our services. Sometimes the decisions are tough, but we would have cut back on reference services even without budget constraints.

    The role of professional librarians is changing because libraries are changing. Reading habits are changing. Electronic books are a mess; readers want them, but the distribution mechanism makes them more expensive than paper. That is hard on the budget!

    • “The role of professional librarians is changing because libraries are changing. Reading habits are changing. Electronic books are a mess; readers want them, but the distribution mechanism makes them more expensive than paper. That is hard on the budget!”

      appreciate knowing that intelligence. The distribution mechanism. That would be who? Direct from publisher or Ingram or individual author on ebooks. Can you give an example of cost of typical book-book to lib and then cost of ebk of same, so can understand more?

      I know online most of the nonfiction I want to read is skyhigh in kindle -some gape at 9,99. Thats nothing. I near daily am looking at kindle ebks that are 20,30, 40, 50 dollars, and the hardback is often as much or more. It’s almost as though the publishers dont want their books to be read. I’d gladlypay 9.99 to gain a volume ebk i can annotate or even more because of the small run and specialized info. But. There oughter be a line.

      I’ve been puzzled at why/how amz wanted to negot w various publishers but seems to have skipped entirely the art, photog, science, historical, socio, econ publishers whose ebks remain sky high, way way over 9.99

      • The main distributors for library ebooks are OverDrive and ebrary, with a few others following distantly behind. Pretty much all of them require a yearly subscription, with the costs of individual ebooks on top of that. Each publisher has different deals with the distributors, and very few of them price ebooks anywhere close to the regular consumer price. The most common ones are $65 per book, $30 but it expires after 26 or 52 checkouts, close to consumer retail but expires after a year, but generally they are much more expensive. These examples are for fiction generally, my library has spent up to $300 on academic ebooks.

        The reason for separate distribution mechanisms is that the costs of a library hosting their own servers to lend ebooks is way beyond most libraries budgets/not enough of a priority for the local governments to fund, so they have to use 3rd party platforms.

        • Overdrive beats our prices down on our audio, so there’s the spoken word artist, then the audio publisher, then overdrive, then the libary. We opted out of Overdrive. Far too many people in the middle.

          Thanks Beth for the info.

          Sometimes it sounds as if ebks are thought by some, like mfg cars, planned obsolence /unavail.

  9. I love my reference librarians because I have weird, specialized questions, and they have access to databases I don’t. Without my librarians, a wealth of info in JSTOR would be out of my reach.

    • Right you are PD. JSTOR access and other databases are beyond valuable.

    • agreed PD. Me too. And JSTOR, someday, they will be disrupted too. Just have to get authors to either give nonexclusive rights, or bypass jstor altogether. The first pay for your paper site that aggregates fine science and research in various including anthro, archeo, ethnol, geo, engineering and more and who PAYS the author per read, will knock JSTOR to the mat.

      My idea of library, we already have. Small towns here, library is in schoolhouse, or a room in post office, or in handbuilt by all the people of the community, central building with shelving and fireplaces and doubles for wedding and funerals and graduation, has a little stage and a pine hewn pole balcony the kids hang legs through to listen. Many many readings aloud to many different groups. most recently Story hour for elders. The young reading to us, the old, while the fire goes low, the room warm, people’s cheeks pink and outside snow falling soft from the lodgepole pines.

      Yes, computer and ebk but not a big fuss, for on rural electric that stutters sometimes as some of you know who live ‘out there.’

      It’s a library that’s run by volunteers who have sometimes have or dont have all their teeth and hair, but are good people who tell people about books and what magic is in them, and answer questions with a theatrical air for the very young… oh, where in the world might there be magic afoot for your geometry paper? I have it right here: magical proscription to solve geometry problem.

      I dont want big brother library. My .02, it ought be decided by the people who use it, how when why where who and ever, with love of the magic in books. So many kinds of magic. So many different kinds/ways/means of books.

  10. Speaking as a tax payer and someone who prefers efficiency

    My plan for libraries would be to remove all the physical books and install a much smaller digital viewing area. Staff would be reduced to a few attendants. All physical books would be sent off to long term warehousing and inventory with multiple copies being thinned as required. All libraries would have access to a nationwide digital reserve containing everything possible. Any physical book libraries remaining would be privately owned or an historical museum or a joint venture funded by dues of the members demanding it.

    Physical books have seen their day. It will be cheaper, easier and better for the environment if we can move past them as soon as possible. Sorry for offending.

    • This would not work for public libraries, but some college bookstores have beaten you to the punch.

    • Your suggestion (a modest proposal) is probably going to happen in the long term. In the short term, there is the problem of some who can’t afford electronic devices, the high cost of licensing ebooks, and the fact that many books aren’t available for licensing in digital format.

      If ebooks were widely available and affordable for libraries, they would be migrating to digital faster as the demand for this type of service exists. More libraries would also acquire and lend reading devices to those individuals who can’t afford the expense.

      Publishers have no interest in losing libraries who are captive customers and they will continue to gouge libraries for as long as possible—their ostensible support for culture and literacy notwithstanding.

      • *Everyone has a cellphone today. They have one given to them if they can’t afford it. This could be their private access to the digital commonwealth. The smaller digital libraries would have terminals.

        I personally would prefer some or most of the savings realized by reduced local staff, physical warehousing and real estate would go into robust centralized archiving of books, data and other information. It would be a library of congress but bigger. A good portion of the savings would go to expanding the E library and scanning the remaining unscanned books and documents.

        I’d also want the data to be secure, distributed and permanent. How? I have no idea.

  11. In age of Google , librarians get shelved .
    In other news, Iran has invented a time machine .

  12. One advantage to a librarian with an MLS is that they’re experts at research. I go to the library reference desk often to ask questions when I’m researching. (And I don’t just ask the “what” Q’s, I explain why I’m looking and give them as much context as I can. It helps them help me.)

    Here’s the thing: I know what I know, but don’t know what I don’t know. I’m adept at researching info — Internet, Reader’s Guide, Who’s Who, etc. But someone with an MLS can direct me to sources I knew nothing about and was ignorant of their very existance.

    And their services and expertise are FREE! A no-cost, knowledgeable research assistant. It’s a deal that can’t be beat.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.