BackTalk: Don't Surrender Library Values

By Steven Bell

Two years ago at a regional conference, I gave a presentation titled "Don't Raise Your White Flag Yet," where I observed the dawn of Google-style librarianship, characterized by acquiescence to the popularity of Google's search system. To my way of thinking, white flag wavers abdicate long-held library values connected to educating users in favor of simplistic interfaces. Their actions suggest that bowing to Google's domination of the search game is easier than maintaining one's commitment to our responsibilities as library educators. Since then the white flags are popping up more frequently and waving more furiously. Here is a guide to the white flag wavers' top five new platitudes.

Anti - user education

It seems that user education is the new "dirty word" in librarianship. Since using Google requires no instruction, library users will no longer tolerate learning how to use library resources. Librarians who insist on educating users, we are told, will succeed only in further alienating the legions of Google lovers. The favorite platitude of this crowd is "librarians want to turn everyone into librarians." This simplistic argument completely misunderstands the realities of user education and shifting educational accreditation standards.

It will suffice

Expecting individuals to achieve high-quality research results is now anathema to our profession. The favorite platitude of the sufficers is "good enough results are okay." Because the general public gladly accepts the frequently awful results it gets from Google, the argument is made that it is sheer folly to expect individuals to aspire to anything beyond just good enough. Clearly that would take time, and Google users have little patience for librarians or search systems that fail to provide instantaneous results that are instantly gratifying.

Find, not search

Even I'll admit this was clever the first time I read it in a Roy Tennant column, but the more I hear it, the less sense it makes. The "only librarians like to search, everyone else wants to find" platitude suggests that librarians are out of touch with popular culture. But can you really find anything without searching for it? Try finding without searching the next time you lose your car keys. Librarians like finding as much as everyone else, but we're more realistic about the necessity of search. I think what we all want is to "create," and both searching and finding are means to that end. I prefer "search first, find, and then create."

Avoid complexity, like Calvin

Calvin, the Bill Watterson comic creation, really hated research. He also sought to avoid complexity at all costs. When Calvin failed to get Susie to do his book reports, he just made up his facts. "Library databases are too complicated" is another popular white flag waver platitude. By all means, let's not expose anyone to anything more complex than Google, as it might scare them away from libraries for good. I'd like to think our user communities can handle some complexity better than Calvin. By the way, anyone who has tried the basic search in a library database would be hard-pressed to describe it as overly complicated.

The Millennial generation

Suddenly librarians have to abandon their time-tested methods because of the "this is the Millennial generation" platitude. One expert tells us that Millennials have no tolerance for delays or complexity. Then the next expert tells us they'll spend thousands of hours trying to figure out a video game that's more complex than your OPAC. Clearly, the answer is to convert all library resources into exceedingly complex video games. Will experts tell us to change everything again when the next generation shows up? The fact is people learn differently, and teachers and librarians need to adapt their methods appropriately. Enough said.

Create wise information consumers

Do we allow ourselves to be guided by traditional values, or do we follow a new order based on giving people what they want regardless of the outcome? Instead of hurling platitudes at each other, let us agree that it is most important to help our users to become knowledgeable about all of their options. The challenges our profession faces cannot be resolved by simple "Google gets it, librarians don't" reasoning. The trick is to devise methods to create wise information consumers who can decide for themselves when a simple or more complex option will return the best possible results. If our profession works collaboratively with educators, instructional technologists, information technologists, and the information industry, we can retain our core values while adapting to an increasingly complex and chaotic information landscape. Oh, and if any of you disagree with me, please send your remarks to Michael Gorman.

Author Information
Steven Bell, a 2002 LJ Mover & Shaker, is Director of the Library, Philadelphia University.

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