Vol. 9 No. 3 March 2001
On Myths: A Letter to Non-Subscribers
by Barbara Quint Editor, Searcher Magazine
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Usually writing this column presents the easiest and most pleasant task in this editor's working life. However, every now and then it does drag a little, not so much writer's block as writer's speed bump. Fortunately, there is one instant panacea to such lollygaging Diatribe. No matter how slow my editorial writing may go, if I can stumble across some presentation that pushes my buttons, you can consider the deadline met!

Lucky me! I just discovered such a presentation.

The January 2001 issue of Library Journal arrived with a "Backtalk" column written by William H. Wisner, reference librarian at the Laredo Community College and recent author of a book entitled, Whither the Postmodern Library? (I won't tell you the name of the publisher. First of all, I don't think you should buy the book, since I don't agree with the few hundred words in the article and suspect the book will just produce thousands more of the same. Second, you're professional searchers. You could find the information yourself in no time at all.) Wisner entitled his observations "Librarianship Enters the Twilight."

The substance of Mr. Wisner's remarks is to indict all modern information technology, the "information capitalists" behind it, and the gullible librarians who played into their hands. He concludes:

The past, which traditionalists like myself are always mourning, was a time when libraries were easier to use, in which patrons retrieved material of unquestionably high authority, and which actively involved reference librarians in the search process when problems arose. The library enjoyed the esteem, even the veneration, of its users.

The article includes other remarks in the same vein targeting technology outside the library world. Mr. Wisner considers that we live "in a society whose tie to the written word is on the endangered species list." Sounds like those old complaints about the decline of letter-writing, until e-mail turned us all into epistolary aficionados. He even mourns that "the only relevant question is whether such highly interactive, mesmerizing media can be controlled before they warp the woof out of the social fabric for good subverting not just the values of librarianship but of our culture as a whole."

His final doom and gloom portends that the "post-modern library, filled with its increasingly self-directed machines" has locked our patrons into "an increasingly depersonalized experience." He warns:

Librarianship's pursuit of efficiency and convenience will lead to increasing privatization at the vendors' helpful little hands and, eventually, total home access of everything a consequence that has plunged the future of libraries into the rosy glow of twilight.

Finally, a point with which we and possibly other regular readers of Searcher magazine can agree. Yes, home delivery of everything is on its way and, yes, librarians are helping to bring that happy day about.

But as for that misty mystical myth of some Golden Age of Libraries where all truth was handmade and hand delivered and all patrons were gratefully enriched by the blessed hands of librarians scattering largesse throughout the land...pull the other one, I'm starting to walk funny.

Libraries "easier to use"?! Yeah, if you didn't mind using card catalogs that operated off rigidly ridiculous rules, e.g., "Bill, Buffalo" or "Holy See. See See, Holy." Yeah, if you didn't mind an information service that might only be open 30 hours a week and those hours not often the ones that accommodated the public's free time or, when it did, operated short staffed without any of those saintly professional librarians in sight.

"Material of unquestionably high authority"? Get real!! If you're talking about any but the largest of research libraries, you're talking a smattering of printed reference sources and not always the latest versions. You're talking library staff whose knowledge of sources to answer specific questions in specific fields was often limited to the material in their collection. It took so long to learn about one's own collection's capabilities that one had little time or energy or will left to pursue better sources outside one's collection. Librarians, like their customers, learned to live within those limitations and to shut their eyes and their minds to inadequacies.

And as for those reference librarians "actively involved in the search process when problems arose," my best days as a reference librarian, judged by the standard of my involvement and interaction with patrons, came after the arrival of online, not before. Even though I worked in a relatively large, research-oriented, special library, it was only the arrival of online searching that enabled me to offer services defined entirely by the users' needs and not the limits of what we had or what we could get in a short amount of time. The post-Web decline of intermediated searching has occasionally caused my spectacles to mist up, but I still know it's for the best.

Do any of you remember that movie (also play) called Amadeus, which posited that an indifferent composer named Salieri killed Mozart in jealousy and blamed his deed on his God-given love of music? What was the basic illogic that revealed the hypocrisy of Salieri and his conversations with the Lord? Well, of course, killing someone, which would hardly indicate even the most basic allegiance to divine instructions (like being able to count up to Five in the Ten Commandments). But the most striking illogicality in this individual situation was the idea of someone who LOVED MUSIC deciding to KILL MOZART. If he truly loved music, he should have lain down his life for Mozart. Mozart made good music. The character of Salieri didn't care about music, he just cared about Salieri.

So what do we really care about here? The welfare of our patrons, their knowledge, their needs, their schedules? Or is our real concern the comfort, care, and convenience of librarians? Anyone who subscribes to the highest standards of professional ethics for our field regardless of whether you call us librarians or information professionals or even (shudder) "cybrarians" should know that the right answer to those questions is the interests of users. And online access through the Internet and its Web represent the real Golden Age for ethical librarians because it brings our customers more information on more subjects more hours of the day and night than our old traditional library ever could. Hallelujah for home access!!

So let's just stop thinking about the good old days and the good old ways and get on with making a better tomorrow for our customers. Lord knows, there's enough work there for a million librarians. We have to build on the Web and with the Web and through the Web. We have to meet the 24/7/365 standard. We have to merge and blend our talents and resources to supply the best service conceivable. We do not have time to do the done. When vendors have the right product or service, our job is to get those vendor products and services into the hands of our users. And we should recognize and respond to the fact that the generous openness of the Web's structure opens up the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity our profession has ever dreamt of the chance to make all of humanity our own personal patron community. We can build virtual systems that answer everyone's questions all the time for all time.

Of course, if you're reading this magazine, you already know that. This editor knows she's preaching to the choir. But, in case you know some infidels, you might just help the magazine drift into the hands of the unaware or reactionary. Maybe you could leave this issue on collegial chairs or even download this article and snail-mail it from the Web site. I assume infidels resist e-mail.

Speaking of the virtue of the virtual, this month's issue introduces a new column and a new columnist for Searcher. Rich Wiggins will be writing a "Behind the Screen" column that we hope will explain the technological underpinnings of the new online realities. In developing the idea for the column, we both recalled the early days of traditional online when vendor training classes also introduced most searchers to the technical realities and paraphernalia of online inverted indexing, Boolean logic, Venn diagrams, etc. But in these self-instructional days of the new online, searchers themselves must seek out that critical knowledge. So the overqualified Wiggins will help us do just that.
Barbara Quint's e-mail address is
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