imageAs if the Kirkus and E&P shutdown announcements aren’t enough for traditionalists, here’s a warning for savvy librarians eager to avoid the fate of this bird—if they want to stay at an academic or public library rather than end up in the corporate world.

Project Information Literacy’s recent paper (PDF) says librarians were “rarely” used by eight out of ten college students participating in a survey. And that’s for “course-related assignments,” the very kind of situation where a librarian might make the most difference.

The paper isn’t so much about librarians per se as it as about how students seek out information for assignments, and Karen Schneider and Sara Houghton-Jan very smartly see this as a “must-read.”

Professor-recommended resources count for students. But as usual, “Google and Wikipedia are go-to sites for everyday life research for nearly every respondent.” Librarian-blessed resource methods don’t quite figure as much as they once would have, pre-Net. Of course, I see this is one more reason for a TeleRead-style national digital library system well integrated with local schools and libraries—and certainly academic ones as well.

To flesh things out, the paper’s scary words for librarians are: “Librarians were tremendously underutilized by students. Eight out of 10 of the respondents reported rarely, if ever, turning to librarians for help with course-related research assignments.”

The main point

As for the main point, Karen regards the paper as upending “most conventional wisdom. First, it shows that students’ information-seeking behavior is at odds with how many libraries provide services; second, that students actually have pragmatic, if overly-formulaic, approaches to research; third, the instructors are the first and most important human relationship these students develop in their research processes; fourth, that students value and use the scholarly resources we provide; and finally (something OCLC has reported in another context), that librarians are at the bottom of all resources students use for their research efforts.”

I myself see a future for librarians if they can lean on information providers to blend librarian-blessed resources better, so students don’t have to hop around from database to database—and if librarians otherwise simplify the use of the best resources.

One way for this to happen would be a system where librarians were more in control—TeleRead territory. Information vendors count. But users’ needs count more. Librarians need to be aggressive and pushy user advocates in such areas as DRM-usability (oxymoron?) and e-book standards—both essential to achieve maximum integration of resources.

Academic and public librarians can also survive if they expand their roles and help develop more books and other content—whether this means public domain digitization projects or partnerships with local bookstores to find and develop talented local writers.

No, I don’t see librarians as vanishing entirely if they don’t wake up. But they will see their numbers vastly diminished.

Oh, and in case you’re curious but haven’t clicked on the relevant link, yes, that dodo bird photo comes from Wikipedia.


Update, 5:04: Another librarian, Gary Price, MLIS and ResourceShelf maven, very correctly reminded me there are places for librarians outside traditional library settings, and I’ve modified the post. Still, my big point remains in the context of public and academic libraries. Do we want society at large to lose librarians to the corporate world and other nonlibrary settings?


  1. I am a retired school librarian. I served public education for thirty of my thirty seven teaching years as a school librarian. I was a teacher first and then became a school librarian. That was the relationship I kept reminding myself all of my career. Your role is to teach, your role is to be the gatekeeper, and your role is to be the visionary who will proffer information for your clients. Your role is to set the table with a delectable smorgasbord of materials which your patrons may feast upon. Your role is to sell the gifts of the past to the students of the future. And if you are not proactive and sell your program, then it and you will die.

    We cannot afford to lose our librarians and our libraries – our centers of free information for public consumption. My family’s forefathers spent too much of their time and wealth establishing places where everyone could come to acquire information to meet their needs and their desires. We must remember that our libraries are the bastion of our greatest freedom – to seek and obtain information without duress and control from any outside agency, organization or pressure group.

  2. Hear, hear, Don! Good public and school libraries mean a better informed electorate. What’s more, past studies have shown that the presence of school librarians is associated with higher test scores. And yet some school boards are still dumping librarians or reducing their ranks. Of course, in the other direction, librarians need to do better marketing and adapt better to competition from Google and the like.

    For now, librarians still have the boomers, accustomed to the old ways. What happens when the digital natives take over?


  3. In the near future libraries need to become the social and intellectual service centers of the community. Already they are the storehouses of the heritage of the community’s culture. And many are already serving as meeting places and external learning centers for a variety of organizations as well as non profit groups. Many host a variety of meetings, concerts and lectures.

    The same role can be played in the schools where the librarian serves as a partner for teachers in constructing a variety of learning activities in each course which help the student to understand the complexities of research activities. Research is not a Google search with the results simply displayed in a sequence of paragraphs, but a carefully analyzed document which often brings new incites to a review of a topic studied.

    Librarians who forget that their major role is that of a teacher – be they public, school, college or research will inevitably find their roles diminished in their organizations and communities.

  4. Librarians need to advertise themselves better to students because, obviously, students don’t get how important the librarian is to them.

    The average students believes in minimal output for the dead minimal requirement for a paper so they just follow the teacher’s simple paper trail with a few books and a bit of online extras.

    If the librarians can convince the students that they can make that paper even easier, the students will be beating down the library’s doors to get to them.

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