Are Librarians Totally Obsolete?

Many predict that the digital age will wipe public bookshelves clean, and permanently end the centuries-old era of libraries. As libraries’ relevance comes into question, librarians face an existential crisis at a time when students need them the most. Despite their perceived obsolescence in the digital age, both libraries and librarians are irreplaceable for many reasons. Nearly twenty reasons, in fact. We’ve listed them here:

1. Not Everything is Available on the Internet: The amazing amount of useful information on the web has, for some, engendered the false assumption everything can be found online. It’s simply not true.

Google Books recognizes this. That’s why they take on the monolith task of digitizing millions of books from the world’s largest libraries. But even if Google does successfully digitize the sum of human knowledge, it is unlikely that the sum of contemporary authors and publishers will not allow their works to be freely accessible over the internet. It is already prohibited by law to make copyrighted books fully accessible through Google Book search.

2. Digital Libraries are not the Internet: A fundamental understanding of what the internet is and isn’t can help clearly define the role of a library, and why libraries are still extremely important. Online library collections, however, are different. They typically include materials that have been published via rigorous editorial processes and are riddled with quantitative analysis, instead of opinion.Types of materials include books, journals, documents, newspapers, magazines and reports which are digitized, stored and indexed through a limited-access database.

While one might use the internet or a search engine to find these databases, deeper access to them requires registration. You are still online, but you are no longer on the internet. You are in a library.

3. The Internet isn’t Free: Numerous academic research papers, journals, and other important materials are virtually inaccessible to someone seeking to pull them off the web for free. Rather, access is restricted to expensive subscription accounts, which are typically paid for by college libraries. Visiting a college library in person or logging in to the library through your school account, is therefore the only way to afford ably access necessary archived resources.

4. The Internet Compliments Libraries, but Doesn’t Replace Them: The internet is clearly a great resource to finding information, but it’s not a replacement for a library. There are clear advantages of libraries over the internet for research, however the benefits of the internet, includes “sampling public opinion”, gathering “quick facts” and pooling a wide range of ideas. Overall, the point is this: libraries are completely different than the web. In this light, to talk about one replacing the other begins to seem absurd.

5. School Libraries and Librarians Improve Student Test Scores: A 2005 study of the Illinois School Libraries shows that students who frequently visit well-stocked and well-staffed school libraries end up with higher ACT scores and perform better on reading and writing exams. Interestingly, the study points out that access digital technology plays a strong role in test results, noting that “high schools with computers that connect to library catalogs and databases average 6.2 percent improvement on ACT scores”.

6. Libraries Aren’t Just Books: Technology is integrating itself into the library system, not bulldozing it. Pushing this trend to its logical extreme (although it’s likely not to happen), we could eventually see libraries’ entire stacks relegated to databases, and have books only accessible digitally. So where does that leave librarians? Are they being overtaken by technology, the timeless enemy of labor?

Technology is integrating itself into the library system, not bulldozing it. Pushing this trend to its logical extreme (although it’s likely not go this far), we could eventually see libraries’ entire stacks relegated to databases, and only be able to access books digitally.

7. Mobile Devices are not the End of Books or Libraries: Predictions of the “end of the book” are a predictable response to digitization and other technologies, and the crystal ball of some in the pro-paper crowd seems to also reveal a concomitant crumbling of civilization. One of the latest dark threats to paper is e-books downloadable to mobile devices.

But e-books are not an all-consuming transition for readers. Radio lives on despite TV, film is still in high demand despite video, people still talk on the telephone despite email. People who like paper books will continue to read paper books even if mobile downloads prompt the majority of publishers to release e-books instead of paper. After all, an immense backlog of printed books will still be accessible to readers. The presence of the digital library will continue to be extremely important role for college students in their research, whether it’s paper or electronically based.

8. Library Attendance isn’t Falling, it’s Just More Virtual: With approximately 50,000 visitors a year, attendance at the American History Archives at Wisconsin Historical Society has dropped 40% since 1987. This statistic, when set alone, may prove sufficient for anybody casually predicting the Collapse of the Library. But it is only half the story. The archives have also been digitized and placed online. Every year the library receives 85,000 unique online visitors. The number of schools offering online degrees is constantly on the rise as well. Many of these schools are improving their virtual libraries by the day.

9. Physical Libraries are Adapting to Cultural Change: Anyone subscribing to the theories of 20th Century thinker Marshal McLuhan might say that along with changed life patterns brought on by electronic technology, knowledge that was once encased in books and compartmentalized by subject area is now being liberally disseminated in an explosion of democracy, rendering obsolete the austerity of the lonely, echoing corridors of the Library. Interestingly McLuhan, who died in 1980, once even said: “the future of the book is the blurb”.

Indeed, this cultural change predates widespread use of the internet. For decades society has been seeking a more holistic understanding of the world, and increased access to information. The search for new methods of organizing educational structures (including libraries) has long been active. And while libraries might not be on many peoples’ “top ten cutting edge list”, they have been adapting.

Washington State University director of libraries Virginia Steel, for example, is a proponent of maximizing the social and interactive nature of physical library space. Group study, art exhibits, food and coffee talking, not whispering; this is the new library. It’s not obsolete, it’s just changing.

10. Eliminating Libraries would Cut Short an Important Process of Cultural Evolution: The library that we are most familiar with today a public or academic institution that lends out books for free is a product of the democratization of knowledge. In the old days, books weren’t always so affordable, and private libraries, or book clubs, were a privilege of the rich. This started changing during the 1800’s, with more public libraries popping up as a result of government initiatives.

Libraries began blossoming under the watch of President Franklin Roosevelt, in part as a tool to differentiate the United States from book-burning Nazis. This increased interest in building a more perfect, liberal society culminated in 1956 with the Library Services Act, which introduced federal funding for the first time.Today there are tens of thousands public libraries in the United States.

The notion that libraries are a thing of the past and that humankind has sprouted wings and flown into a new era of self-guided. Unfortunately, it’s this same notion that could lead to the notion of libraries as stuffy and out-of-date. In reality, the quality of the web depends on guidance from the library model. While moderators do have brush to clear in the new and savage cyber-scape, librarians have trail blazed significant parts of the journey.

11. Wisdom of Crowds is Untrustworthy, Because of the Tipping Point: The high visibility of certain viewpoints, analysis and even facts found online through social networking sites and wikis is engineered ideally to be the result of objective group consensus. Google’s algorithm also hinges on this collective principle: rather than an in-house “expert” arbitrarily deciding what resource is the most authoritative, let the web decide. Sites with higher link popularity tend to rank higher in the search engines. The algorithm is based on the principle that group consensus reveals a better, more accurate analysis of reality than a single expert ever could. Writer James Surowiecki calls this phenomenon “the wisdom of crowds.”

In a vacuum, crowds probably are very wise. But all too often we see the caveat to James Surowiecki’s crowd wisdom in Malcom Gladwell’s “tipping point”, which, in this context, explains that groups are easily influenced by their vanguard those who are the first to do something and who automatically have extra influence, even if what they are doing is not necessarily the best idea.

The highly social nature of the web therefore makes it highly susceptible to, for example, sensationalized, low-quality information with the sole merit of being popular. Libraries, in contrast, provide quality control in the form of a stopgap. Only information that is carefully vetted is allowed in. Libraries are likely to stay separate from the internet, even if they can be found online. Therefore, it is extremely important that libraries remain alive and well, as a counterpoint to the fragile populism of the web.

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