the future of libraries in the digital age
posted by Jeanne Munn Bracken
Today's sermon...er, blog... is about researchers of easy virtue. The ones who go directly to the New York Times website to find articles and other information. The ones who pay for articles rather than looking for them as freebies. The ones who have a house full of books they've read once but will never touch again unless they dust them once in a while or pack them to move. (Do you know what it costs to move books? We are already weeding out books from our huge collection in anticipation of relocating someplace ice-less in a few years.)
The researchers who go it alone. Who rely on Google for all their information needs. Someone on a Bouchercon panel last year told the audience that "all you need is Google. Google is amazing, and it's all free."
Okay, Google is amazing. It's a good place to start a quick search. I confess I even use Wikipedia sometimes for a fast definition.
But, friends, I can tell you--you get what you pay for. And as taxpayers, you have already supported the greatest information source extant: your public library. I have almost 40 years' experience working in libraries. After brief stints at university, medical, and corporate, institutions as well as volunteering in a school library, I have settled into my personal best niche. I am the reference librarian in a smallish networked suburban library.
So I was bemused to note that USA Today link had an article a little while ago called "Steal this Book? Don't Bother". (Extra points if you can identify the 60s radical who wrote Steal This Book.) The article's author (Candace Lombardi) correctly pointed out how valuable the library is. So far so good. She also noted that it's not easy to find the good stuff that libraries provide. Guilty as charged. Then she blew it with the link to another online article she had written, listing a variety of great resources available online--for free.
Uh, uh. Nope. I have used most of the sources she mentions, and they are certainly not free.
Well, not exactly. She suggests that you can just click on the link and you're on your way. You can't, unless you have your credit card firmly in hand. But you can, indeed, access most of those databases for free--if you go through your library's website. Of the baker's dozen sites she mentions, I can tell our patrons how to get to 9 of them, using a different card: your library card.
Your library probably subscribes to some of these databases. If your library is too small, there's a good chance that a network or your state makes them available for you.
Agreed, the steps to reaching these databases are many and non-intuitive. But trust me when I say that it's worth your while to stop by the library, ask for a demo, pick up a brochure, or call if you're stumped. I feel your pain, but my brother and sister librarians stand (well, sit, mostly) ready to help you through the maze to the Holy Grail: The Facts You Need.
I can get you original articles from the New York Times about the Chicago World's Exposition of 1893. I can get you the names of the top officers of 11 million US and Canadian companies, with phone numbers. I can get you guides to the birds of Costa Rica, the wild flowers of Nepal, and French prisons of the Revolutionary era. And oh, so much more. Music CDs, audiobooks, movies on video or DVD, magazines and articles from magazines, electronic books, and geniune printed books, in regular or large type fonts. I can even get you the newest Harry Potter, although it'll take a while. I can suggest good books to read, from thrilling nonfiction to chilling mysteries.
That's just the tip of the library iceberg. We librarians have been way too quiet for our own good. We should be standing on our desks, touting our wares. Some "experts" think we don't need libraries any more because we have the internet with all that "free" information.
I reply that we need libraries (and librarians) more than ever, just to help sort out the junk from the good stuff.
One of the pieces of advice that new writers hear all the time is, "Your librarian is your best friend." Nice try on my part, but years of therapy and I'm not there yet.