Librarians in a Digital Age
What I Thought Librarians Did
To be honest, I never really knew what a librarian actually did. When I was a child and a voracious reader, my mother took me to the library every chance she had just to satisfy my bottomless appetite for books - the gas to and from our house must have been cheaper than constantly stocking our own shelves with shiny new covers. I loved the library: the smell of used books, the crinkly covers, the unstoppable power I felt by owning my own library card, the dark corners where I could hide all day, surrounded by piles of books. When catalog systems were first introduced in my library, I scorned the idea of using the library as a quick-stop; I was one who enjoyed spending hours at the library, always wanting to give each book it's rightful time and thought to guess at the plot, admire the binding, and read the first couple of pages to see if it was a keeper.
As a child, librarians were never very helpful. Either they were shushing me, eyeing me witheringly as I checked out my second maximum amount of books for the month, or re-shelving novels that, in my excitement, I had accidentally put back in the wrong location (to be fair, I now realize that children and books don't always mix - hence the board-back books of my teething youth!). Librarians always seemed to be either re-shelving or checking books out; even when I ventured to ask a librarian of the whereabouts of a specific book, the first place they went to was the computer, to check the catalog. As I grew up, I found myself thinking: why don't libraries employ only housekeepers and computers? Maybe librarians were just another leftover habit from an older age - like how some writers still use typewriters in the face of the newest Word processors.
One can imagine my surprise then, while flipping through my college course catalog, to find that Library Science is actually a degree (the required courses were Shelving Books Without Bending the Cover and How to Politely yet Sternly Escort Small Children to the Exit, I joked to myself)! My feelings on librarians didn't really change until I was in the midst of Phonology 201, which required a one-day seminar on finding information in scientific databases, taught by... a librarian. As I sat in the dark room, trying to understand what URL to type in order to find data on Icelandic geminates for my final paper, the realization dawned on me. Perhaps librarians exist not to shelve books or scold naughty children, but - to help others access information.
What Librarians Should Do
If this is true, then the role of the librarian was first created in order to help the common public access books which couldn't be accessed outside of the library. However, if the role of the librarian is to help the public access information, then how is this role changing as books are becoming more and more obsolete? Since that first seminar in my university library, I have realized more and more that since most information is now housed online, librarians need to become experts in helping the public find, save, and share information for any particular subject or purpose. The new librarian must understand how to search scientific databases, how to give lessons on current technology and systems, and how to turn children and adults into data sharks.
While working in Ghana, I've realized the need for a librarian more than ever. Information is so difficult to come by - the lack of books and libraries are only shadowed by the lack of computers and the internet. Even children understand the importance of WWW, but sometimes angrily, for the most part enduring quietly, don't have access.
Meet Myra: The New Librarian
I recently met the librarian for the US Embassy in Accra, Ghana, an American named Myra Michele Brown from Washington, DC, who was just completing a three-year tour of West Africa. Her chosen title was Information Resource Officer: Myra was in Ghana to bring information into the hands of those who craved it. Myra has created a computer lab at the US Embassy, which is open and accessible to everyone - especially children. During her workshops, which she took on the road throughout West Africa, Myra taught children and young adults how to use Google, Wikipedia, and other favorite websites used for discovering information. Most importantly, however, Myra taught her students how to save information, through the use of social bookmarking tools like Delicious, Digg, or Stumble Upon. Counting upon the inaccessibility and unreliability of most African computers, Myra knew it was paramount for her students to learn how to save information once they had found it, since once their internet time ran out or the electricity switched off, their information was (poof!) gone.
Myra is a new breed of librarian, as someone who recognizes the potential of information and what information can bring to those who don't have it. Even for those of us lucky enough to be data-rich, us social media gurus and tech hounds, we still need systems for storing our information and locating new information, or else we run the risk of swimming in the same pool of water day after day. Libraries should become a place of discovery and collaboration - such as the US Embassy library in Accra, where children excitedly whisper their findings to one another as they browse that massive, omnipotent keeper of information, the web. Librarians have always acted as guides, and so they should into the next age of information: technology and the internet.
As Seth Godin says, for the right librarian [or Information Resource Officer], this is the chance of a lifetime. However, they should choose their titles accordingly.