Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Miss Dorothy and Her Bookmobile and Reference Is Dead

Like many children, Dorothy had aspirations for her future. She would be a librarian with "a fine brick library" in the center of a town square, such as the one she frequented as a child in Massachusetts. She got the library degree and was ready for the work, but then she married and moved to the base of Mount Mitchell in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. There was no library and Dorothy was sad, but there were many people who wanted to read. You can read the rest of the true story in the children's book Miss Dorothy and Her Bookmobile by Gloria Houston and illustrated by Susan Condie Lamb.

While Houston's book is intended to teach children about perseverance and the privilege of reading books, it has another lesson that recent library school graduates and even old librarians should contemplate - things often turn out differently than we planned. What we imagined as youths may never come to pass. For example, I always thought that I would eventually work as a reference librarian in a major metropolitan library with a huge room dedicated just to the reference books. I assumed that our economy and society's demand for education and ready knowledge would always grow, and there would always be funds for large subject encyclopedias, huge atlases, and expensive scientific handbooks. With a large team of librarians, I would spend my days finding the answers to difficult questions, such as "What were the religious beliefs of the pharaohs of Egypt?" or "What is the most effective treatment for dengue fever?" I also thought I would have an hour for lunch, during which I would walk home, eat, read the newspaper, and nap for a few minutes. Life would be idyllic.

Needless to say, my life is much different. But it is great the way it turned out for me. I work in a suburban library with educated clients, and with a small but sharp team of librarians, I help people cope with contemporary problems, which may include finding answers to difficult questions about history and science. More often we help people identify toll-free numbers for consumer assistance, get instructions to fix appliances, print tax forms, and request books for the book clubs. We spend countless hours instructing young and old in the use of computers, the Internet, photocopiers, ebook readers, and other technology. Just last week, I had a senior who had been directed by her Internet provider's technical troubleshooter to take her laptop to the closest public library where there would be wireless service and a knowledgeable librarian to help him help her.

Which brings me to "Geeks Are the Future" with its statement "Reference is dead." In saying that reference librarians need to be fired to make room for IT professionals, Eli Neiburger seems to have fallen into the contemporary "either or" trap. Reference or IT? It seems unfortunate thinking to me, especially his feeling a need to attack a traditional library service, one that many of us believe gives added value to our collections of content. It also seems that his position is an "either or" choice of clients. Is he saying that we can only serve the technologically hip and forget the people who are not embracing the online world?

Of course, we need technologically savvy people to design websites and apps, but we still need reference librarians to help clients access the collections. My recent experiences from hiring librarians is there are many people with both sets of skills. They can tweak HTML code and find obscure facts about the Founding Fathers, troubleshoot PCs and find population statistics, explain the use of ereaders and recommend horror fiction to eager readers. These are talented, dedicated people. There is no "either or" choice to make. The key is to get energetic, well-rounded people to serve our libraries and their clients - modern Miss Dorothys with their dreams of being librarians.

Houston, Gloria. Miss Dorothy and Her Bookmobile. 2011. ISBN 9780060291556

No comments: