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The Digital Librarian as Essential Worker

by Michael Garfield - Twitter: @michaelgarfield on July 30th, 02020

Michelle Swanson, an Oregon-based educator and educational consultant, has written a blog post on the Internet Archive on the increased importance of digital librarians during the pandemic:

With public library buildings closed due to the global pandemic, teachers, students, and lovers of books everywhere have increasingly turned to online resources for access to information. But as anyone who has ever turned up 2.3 million (mostly unrelated) results from a Google search knows, skillfully navigating the Internet is not as easy as it seems. This is especially true when conducting serious research that requires finding and reviewing older books, journals and other sources that may be out of print or otherwise inaccessible.

Enter the digital librarian.

Michelle Swanson, “Digital Librarians – Now More Essential Than Ever” from the Internet Archive.

Kevin Kelly writes (in New Rules for the New Economy and in The Inevitable) about how an information economy flips the relative valuation of questions and answers — how search makes useless answers nearly free and useful questions even more precious than before, and knowing how to reliably produce useful questions even more precious still.

But much of our knowledge and outboard memory is still resistant to or incompatible with web search algorithms — databases spread across both analog and digital, with unindexed objects or idiosyncratic cataloging systems. Just as having map directions on your phone does not outdo a local guide, it helps to have people intimate with a library who can navigate the weird specifics. And just as scientific illustrators still exist to mostly leave out the irrelevant and make a paper clear as day (which cameras cannot do, as of 02020), a librarian is a sharp instrument that cuts straight through the extraneous info to what’s important.

Knowing what to enter in a search is one thing; knowing when it won’t come up in search and where to look amidst an analog collection is another skill entirely. Both are necessary at a time when libraries cannot receive (as many) scholars in the flesh, and what Penn State Prof Rich Doyle calls the “infoquake” online — the too-much-all-at-once-ness of it all — demands an ever-sharper reason just to stay afloat.

Learn More

  • Watch Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle’s 02011 Long Now talk, “Universal Access to All Knowledge.”

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