I watched Ghostbusters with my parents recently, and as I was watching the first five minutes, featuring a ghost in a big old library, I was struck by how dated that part of the movie is now, with those big card catalog drawers opening and cards spewing out all over. You’d be hard-pressed to find a physical card catalog in many libraries these days; even the small public library from the town where I grew up is all computerized now.
And that thought again came to mind when I came across Ars Technica’s look at the present and future of libraries, which are changing with the times—though for some people, they may not be changing fast enough. Sarah Houghton, the blogger behind Librarian in Black and acting director of the San Rafael Public Library in California, said that kids who come into the library have expectations a bit out of line with older generations’.
“Every screen is a touch screen,” she told Ars, “and when it’s not they get confused as hell. Kids expect instant delivery of everything. If you can’t get it right that second, it doesn’t exist. When you tell them that a thing they want doesn’t exist digitally, that it’s a physical thing and that’s it, it blows their mind. If there is some book they need to write a report on, say, Mayan culture, and it’s not online, they get mad.
“I’ve encountered people in their mid-late 20s who have that same expectation.”
The article talks about libraries’ evolutions toward the future, replacing card catalogs with digital catalogs that can have much better search abilities, and changing from strictly book repositories to multiuse spaces with computer and media facilities. Libraries are changing from just being places where you to go get books to being places where you go to have people help you find information. Welch Medical Library at Johns Hopkins actually closed its physical facilities to patrons altogether in favor of online access or access via the librarians.
An important role that librarians are going to need to play, according to [Associate Director for Research and Instructional Services at MIT Steven] Gass, is that of online credibility coach. By and large, people know, or learn, often osmotically, what constitutes a credible source in a book. It is a safe bet that a book on Chaucer published by Oxford University Press is going to be more reliable than one published by Hustler. But how to do the same for material that is native to the Web?
“It is a shared goal among colleagues nationwide to promote good information learning skills,” said Gass, “how to identify quality information, to instill new academics with how to think about information, about its quality, to teach the ‘tricks of the trade,’ so to speak, in assessing accuracy.”
Which puts me in mind of that article I posted earlier today, about the professor whose Internet hoax class project was immediately debunked by Reddit. Not everybody is going to have the fact-checking skills of a redditor, unless librarians can somehow manage to install them.
And the article also reminds me of a science fiction series I’ve enjoyed lately that features a future librarian prominently. The Lieutenant Leary series by David Drake, the first few books of which are available as free e-books through this Baen CD, involves librarian Adele Mundy, who is first seen overseeing the shelving of books on a somewhat backward planet but whose real talent is that she’s a whiz at computerized information search and retrieval. She turns into a top-notch intelligence analyst (and close friend) for the titular Lieutenant Daniel Leary, RCN.
At any rate, it’s interesting to see how libraries are changing with the times. I wonder what the next twenty years will bring?