Thursday, October 13, 2005

On the need for librarians to stay current

Through Steven Cohen's Library Stuff, a link to an article by Peter Jacso entitled "Informed and Underinformed Librarians." I get the feeling this may get some people in the biblioblogosphere talking down the road. I think Dr. Jacso, an LIS Professor at the University of Hawaii, makes some excellent points about the need for librarians to stay current and informed, but I also think he may be laying it a little thick when it comes to the use of free resources like Google on the part of librarians. I can just see those librarians out there who swear by tools like Google and Wikipedia getting their feathers ruffled. I think what I agree with is the idea of the embracing of a "feel-good" rather than a "learn-good" attitude. I can relate to this because I have often seen it in the field of education where teachers and others worry more about little Johnny or Jane feeling good rather than actually learning something. In that regard, it is not different from what Dr. Jacso suggests. Where I beg to disagree with the article is that a librarian using Google is not just being lazy or just going the easy route. At times, there are moments when just googling something is more efficient and will get you what you need. Many librarians who do keep up are often looking for better ways to make Google and other search tools more efficient. Yes, libraries have a wide array of tools on subscription that represent very high quality, but at times they do not have what you may need. I can give you a perfect example.

I have some classes on Business and Technical Writing that have to write feasibility reports, usually on very local topics like setting up a daycare center on the campus, solving the campus parking situation, or often something about their apartment community or workplace. Some of the information can be searched on places like Academic Search Premier or Lexis-Nexis. Lexis-Nexis can be good for college student topics because it picks up campus newspapers, so the approach is one of showing them that their issue is not just local, and thus they can gather information from outside the locality. However, there are some things where they just have to look up stuff about the city or the county, and they are often things that are not covered by the subscription based databases. These items have to searched on a search engine. Sure, some things like government information you can find on something like FirstGov, but that is still a, say it with me, free website. For municipal items, and sometimes they need to look at things like local ordinances, it takes some internet digging. I am still waiting for the subscription-based resource sitting under my nose, as Dr. Jacso suggests, that will pick up such localized government documents. Here is the actual quote from Dr. Jacso to provide the context:

"It is enough of a concern that the public turns to Google for everything. It is more of a concern when underinformed librarians do so, instead of using the resources under their nose, (and informing their patrons about them) which are much better for answering the question, and which the libraries and often the taxpayers pay for."
I can certainly see his point, but it is not so black and white. I agree that there are some very uninformed librarians. But I will also suggest that there are some very savvy and informed librarians who keep up with various things through workshops, reading in the literature, and so on who know when to go outside the garden of the subscription resources. It seems to me Dr. Jacso either forgets these informed librarians or lumps them with the uninformed. Do I think it is of some concern that people turn to Google right away for just about everything? Yes, and that could be the topic of a few posts. Do I think that this means we should exclude it or assume right away it is bad? No. If anything, what we can and should be doing is educating people on how to make better use of sources like Google AND we should be informing and educating patrons about the resources the library does maintain and pay for on behalf of the patrons. For some consolation, Dr. Jacso does offer some names of people who "know equally well the free resources and the subscription-based ones" and publish and educate others. To which I say great; I am sure they are indeed great librarians and information professionals. However, he makes this mention at the end of the article by which time he has pretty much denigrated everyone else, and it comes off sounding like "there are some good people out there, count them, but everyone else who uses free resources, informed or otherwise, is less than (insert your denigratory term here)." There are no actual denigratory terms, like "dinosaur," which I have heard used, but the tone of the article has the same effect.

So, on the one hand, I absolutely agree. If you became a librarian, it is your job, your duty, to stay informed and up-to-date on the best of information resources. You should be well read; you should attend workshops and conferences when you can and budget allows (something Dr. Jacso fails to mention, that not everyone can afford to be travelling all over for workshops); and you should continually practice on your search skills. On the other hand, while I think that Google and Wikipedia are certainly not panaceas, they can have their uses. They are not perfect, but a good librarian can tell you that because they have used them and thus know what the imperfections are. Maybe the article made me think a bit more than I would usually on this topic, but all I have to do is look at some of my students and their assignments to know the databases we pay for are not going to answer their need. Am I supposed to tell them, sorry, we don't have it because it would mean having to go on Google? Or would I prefer to use a search engine or directory to find what they need, help them evaluate it and make the best use of it? I am opting for the later.

On a final thought, Mr. Cohen notes that Dr. Jacso does not seem to address the fact that librarians need to choose to stay current. Mr. Cohen writes, "We can't force our colleagues to stay current. What we need to do educate librarians and librarians-to-be on the value of staying current. A mandatory course in library school comes to mind." This is very much true. I know that I choose to stay current to the best of my abilities. Reading through blogs like Mr. Cohen's is just one small way I do so. I also read on the literature and do other things in the ever going quest to stay informed and current. It is an active choice, and no one can make it for you. I am not sure a mandatory course would do the trick since you have to choose to continue your professional growth after graduate school. The course can plant the seed to teach new librarians about this need, but then they have to choose it once they leave library school. It is a discipline and an ethic as much as a choice. It works best when you make the choice because you actually believe it is the best for you as a professional, not because someone forces you. Then again, having some kind of incentive in the workplace to keep up, from time to actually read up while at work to much better support for travel and continuing education, can certainly not hurt. At any rate, the article is worth reading, and I will be looking to see if it does spark conversation.

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