Librarians of the Future

People love Seth Godin. He’s ever so mildly inflammatory (without ever saying anything particularly daring) and always willing to predict what’s going to happen 30 seconds into the future. His new blog post fits in pretty cleanly with everything he usually writes. The internet is the future! Everything will eventually cost less than the button on your shirt! Things are happening faster than you can imagine! Okay, to be fair, he doesn’t use that many exclamation points. He just uses tons and tons of italics.

I don’t mean this as a takedown of Godin—promise. I think he’s well-intentioned and often on the right track. But I always react badly to something in each of his posts. Let us take this example:

“Want to watch a movie? Netflix is a better librarian, with a better library, than any library in the country. The Netflix librarian knows about every movie, knows what you’ve seen and what you’re likely to want to see. If the goal is to connect viewers with movies, Netflix wins.”

That makes my brain itch a little. Let’s unpack this: does Netflix have access to more DVD’s than any library out there? Possibly in terms of sheer variety, yes it does. And they’re very easily searchable. But in terms of the service knowing what you’ve seen “and what you’re likely to want to see,” Netflix depends on a sort of group-think and law of averages that, while often right, cannot factor in the individual. To wit, for every ten movies that Netflix think I’ll love (and I do), there’s at least one baffling choice that people with similar taste to mine appreciated because they were wrong.

It’s like saying that Wikipedia is a better encyclopedia than any other because of the sheer breadth of topics and variety of information. Which…holy crap! Back to Godin: “Wikipedia and the huge databanks of information have basically eliminated the library as the best resource for anyone doing amateur research (grade school, middle school, even undergrad).”

To be fair, like most of Godin’s posts, he comes around to a solid point: yes, the freer flow of information and data is making the role of the librarian different than it was in the past. Which I’m pretty sure anyone who has spoken to a librarian in the past five years was already aware of. (Why can’t I avoid being snarky any time I talk about him?) But here’s my thing: while there is cause to celebrate the ongoing spread of accessible and affordable literature and information, is the role of the librarian really being able to shepherd people through various ways of acquiring information? Or is it helping people identify what information is actually valuable?

5 Responses to Librarians of the Future

  1. I’m an aspiring writer but also training to be a librarian and have been a library assistant (doing many of the same duties) for several years. The role of the librarian is both. We are here to help people find and understand information. (And to contrast Godin and many others, I don’t think it will all be free someday, especially advanced academic research. The costs we’re paying indicate otherwise, actually.) However, the role is changing as creation and distribution channels evolve with technology. In many ways, I see librarians fulfilling sort of a parallel role to traditional publishers in the traditional vs. self-publishing debate: both are there to serve as an authenticator, giving a seal of approval and indicating quality. Traditional publishers, it is argued, will become brands that people trust when looking for fiction in the huge piles that will come around now that anyone can publish. Librarians will help people determine what information is authoritative, current, useful, and so on. And this IS a service that is needed. Spend some time reading college papers or, heck, half of the articles in certain newspapers or popular journals, and it will be evident who has acquired research skills and who has not. And those skills aren’t often taught in a classroom; at every school (elementary through university) I’ve attended or worked at, that duty has fallen to the librarians. If there is more information available, people will need guides to determine which of it has value. Netflix- and Amazon-style algorithms may have their uses and I think they will be adopted in some form by libraries, but they can’t handle the most complex questions, or help a patron who doesn’t even know which words to use to begin their research.

  2. Hilarious–I completely agree. (On a related note, he also reminds me of Thomas Friedman, who specializes in writing books about things once they have become completely obvious–see the world is flat, etc.)

    Of course, the thing with Netflix is that it depends on you to rate the movies you watch in order to give you decent recommendations. Otherwise its’ basically just showing you what other people rented, which is pretty useless. (And the more popular a movie is, the more it breaks down.) If you can find a good movie rental place–now almost impossible, thanks to Netflix!–you could tell someone there what you liked recently and get a good recommendation. Same with librarians: tell them what you like, let them tell you what you will like. Just like netflix, but 10 bucks less a month ….

  3. I do 95% of my research on the internet, but I recently discovered the true value of librarians. I was searching for statistics, and the internet failed me. My usual authoritative sources came up dry, and my searches produced pages and pages of results that didn’t answer my questions no matter how I tweaked the search parameters.

    I went to the public library and put my questions to the librarian. She seized on the topic like a ravenous dog with a meaty bone. She quoted a number of useful sources right off the top of her head, unearthed a number of others for me while I stood there in awe, and tenaciously mined that library until no fact remained undiscovered. To be truthful, it was actually a little scary, though in a good way!

    I think that as the flood of available information increases, librarians will become increasingly valuable, both as guides to information and as authenticators.

    But most importantly, I think librarians will continue to provide what even the most complex Boolean search logic can’t match: a human brain. They’ll let you ask a long and detailed question, and allow you to add and modify the parameters of the query as you go. Then they’ll present you with relevant results correctly interpreted from your clumsy words, and delivered with a smile. Beat that, Google!

  4. Lisa Marie says:

    Seth Godin is a hoot, isn’t he? How can one possibly argue with the man who rather astutely pointed out, “Mass taste is rarely good taste” –? Far more people appreciate the taste of Mickey Ds than they do the prepared plates from the natural food store on my street. Ouch – painful, but true.

    The emergence of Godin is a reflection of everything that’s happening in social networking and online interactions. Really, he’s not saying anything that Timothy Leary wasn’t nattering on about twenty years ago; he’s simply updated it for the next generation’s consumption and thrown in a dash of subtle irony. People love to hate Godin because he’s so spot on. He understands the concept of group-think, as well as how to use it to his advantage (far more people will defer to Wikipedia than they will texts penned by experts, simply because of the convenience factor).

    To my mind, the role of the librarian is to tell you on which floor the Uniform Commercial Codes are located and to check out books at the reserve desk. If the person using the library doesn’t know what he or she is searching for, that’s probably someone who needs Wikipedia. ☺

  5. Kurt Hartwig says:

    I expect everyone who reads this blog is going to agree with the sentiment expressed in the writing, which is a bit of the problem that Godin isn’t talking about, self-selection. I disagree with Jason’s disregard for Netflix’s selection algorithm. Pandora operates on a similar principle – given the library in question (iTunes, Netflix, Pandora), all of which are finite and often kept distinct for reasons of proprietary technology and paid-for rights, I find their selection criteria to be pretty great, although the occasional Air Supply song out of Pandora always surprises me.

    The advantage of the librarian is that that person is our search engine, and s/he is not limited one library. The problem with the internet is that it is limited to available webpages. It’s too big and we don’t have librarians to help us navigate it – search engines are too broad. We need guides to help us on our specific journeys.

    Wikipedia has lowered the threshold for research in the same way that digital technology has lowered the threshold for making movies, but most of us are not the savants who can make a good movie the first time out or get past the work of “amateur” research. Convenience is one kind of trump card, but patience is another.

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