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:
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.
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 http://www.infotoday.com/searcher
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.