This piece is part of our “Rebirth Of The Library” show. Take a look at the rest of our stories here.
Today’s information professionals say that Google hasn’t made them obsolete.
Several years ago, Forbes Magazine listed the advanced degrees with the worst job prospects—and a master’s in library sciences was No. 1 on the list. Despite that gloomy prediction and some staid image problems, young librarians say their work is relevant in the 21st Century and is as needed now as it has ever been.
“You say, I’m going to library school, and everybody is like, ‘Well, aren’t libraries kind of over? What are you going to be doing?'” said 34-year-old Jay Granger, a management and library and information sciences student in the online program at the University of Southern California.
He wears glasses and cardigans sometimes. Granger acknowledges the spinster librarian stereotype and doesn’t seem too worried.
“But we will need to embrace a whole new kind of noise in the profession,” he wrote in a blog post. “Shushing in the digital age will just get spit on your computer screen.”
Granger says Google’s search engine can’t replace him; it just frees up information professionals to help with more complicated information needs.
“That’s a great way to spend a day. I love doing that,” Granger said. “You’re trying to set up someone on the perfect date with the perfect source.”
Corporations and startups hire librarians to organize all that information they collect about customers, and Granger says health researchers could use his skills, too.
“Big data is a big deal right now, but learning to use the tools that allow you to search millions of tweets at a time and understand the relationships between them, those are the things that librarians specialize in.”
Traditionally, librarians have a degree from a library school. But in recent years, many university programs have dropped the word ‘library’ from their name and now call themselves “information schools”—even when they continue to offer a library degree.
Twenty-eight-year-old Jarrett Drake learned librarianship at the University of Michigan School of Information. He’s Princeton University’s first-ever digital archivist, which is a librarian who preserves things created on computing devices.
“The term we refer to is ‘born digital,’ Drake said. “Facebook, Twitter pages, WORD documents, PDFs, spreadsheets, all of these kinds of digital documents.
His office is in Mudd Library where Princeton keeps 270 years of Ivy League history. There are administration letters, meeting notes, charters—lots of paper piled into boxes, and those boxes are stacked high on shelves. While touring the stacks, Drake pointed out an old, clunky, black typewriter used by one of the university presidents during the 1930s.
“Who knows, in 100 years or 200 years, people will come by and look at an old MacBook Pro and say ‘Oh, look at that old, cool thing. Isn’t that so nice.’ And that’s how I get when I look at old typewriters,” Drake said.
His job is to figure out how to safeguard ones and zeros, and to do that, he gets help from a $10,000 machine called “FRED,” a Forensic Recovery of Evidence Device. It looks like a big server with a dozen ports on the front. Beside the machine, Drake keeps a stack of cables, FireWires and USB cords to upload documents from just about any kind of computer.
The F.B.I. and D.E.A. use the same kind of machine to detect computer crimes. Drake says his library work follows a similar forensic approach. He wants to collect without contaminating.
“If a book comes to a library, you want to make sure there’s no mold, for instance, that there are no bugs or insects, and so a virus scan is a digital version of that,” Drake said.
You can imagine the archivists who worked at Mudd Library before Jarrett Drake gently handling the artifacts and rare books. Electronic files get the same kind of care and attention but updated for the 21st Century: Drake protects documents from bit rot and FRED stamps every file with a digital fingerprint.Some of the science of the work is giving future library patrons access in some of the same ways that the original users interacted with and experienced the digital information.
“You can scroll up and down, and you hover over different things,” Drake said as he demonstrated a cached Twitter feed.
Princeton is collecting artifacts from activist groups around campus, and Drake says, someday, historians will want to study those student-made hashtags and YouTube videos.
“Especially, you know, when and if Twitter goes belly up,” Drake said. “How were people using records and information in 2015 and like, I don’t know, it’s 2055.”
In other places, librarians are building digital collections that recognize social media as a primary source for research. Librarians in St. Louis and Maryland are stockpiling digital artifacts from the online BlackLivesMatter movement. At Brown University and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France they are archiving the Arab Spring.
Information professionals also see a future helping the rest of us manage our Snapchat stories and selfies. Many people are really bad about downloading that stuff to a hard drive for safekeeping. So, we clog up our cell phones and are drowning in digital mementos.
“All that ephemera of people’s everyday lives may seem insignificant if we are only thinking about one person, but if we are able to collect that on a wider scale, that really gives enormous insight into who we are as a culture and as a society. Just as we study, you know, letters from 18th Century England, that’s considered to be important,” said T-Kay Sangwand.
She’s a digital scholarship librarian with the University of California, Los Angeles, now, but before that, Sangwand worked for years at the University of Texas Libraries. For her, the future of library science is sharing information skills with marginalized people so they can build their own libraries.
“When people see my job title, they actually misread it, and see ‘human rights activist’ as opposed to ‘human rights archivist’ but I actually don’t think they are very different,” Sangwand said.
‘Keepers of the historical record’
In the 1960s, socially conscious librarians began to realize there are stories we’re missing from our big institutions.
“A lot of times what was deemed important were the records of people in power, and the people who were generally in power were generally older, white men,” Sangwand said. “The work that we do does have profound political and historical implications as keepers of the historical record.”
So, today, librarian-activists work to collect other voices—such as the testimony of Josephine Murebwayire, a wife and mother of six—who survived the genocide in Rwanda. In 1994, paramilitary soldiers herded her daughters, her husband and neighbors from the Tutsi ethnic minority together on a field. Murebwayire was the only person in her family to live through that mass execution.
Sangwand helped teach preservation skills to local library professionals in Africa to launch a digital archive based at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Artifacts and thousands of original beta videotapes remain there, but now the testimonies of survivors and perpetrators are available online for everyone to hear.
Modern librarians are continuing the tradition of providing access but their tools are high tech–and now–their collections are often ‘born digital.’
That’s the work at universities and special collections, but neighborhood libraries say they are still relevant too.
The public library in Collingswood, New Jersey—just a few miles outside of Philadelphia–is exactly what you’d expect. But they are nods to the future and signs of how patrons are using the space differently.There’s free Wi-Fi, and in the sunny front window, you can sit at a high top table to drink coffee and set up a laptop. The museum passes are one of the most popular things that the library lends. Families borrow a pass for free family admission museums in Philadelphia.
Library director Brett Bonfield says when 19th century tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie began funding public libraries; the vision was to improve wellbeing for Americans.
Bonfield—who recently accepted the director position at the Princeton Public Library–wants to test that idea.
“I would love to know if people are financially literate, and if we can help with that,” Bonfield said. “I would love to know if we could do things that would make people feel more engaged in their community, and that could show up as voting. Maybe they would be more likely to vote in local elections or national elections because of programs we’ve done or the collections we offer.”
In Collingswood, once a week there’s a story time in Spanish for preschoolers and their parents. Maybe story time–or the library’s popular teen space– translate to kids who do better in school later in life. Maybe all those uninsured people who used library computers to sign up for the Affordable Care Act are healthier.
Teens attend a Star Wars party at Collingswood Library. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
Bonfield says the future of library science is figuring out if libraries are actually delivering on the promise to make communities better.
Because libraries are so well liked—they serve the old and young—Bonfield says there’s not been much clamor yet for them to justify themselves, but he says taxpayers want their money’s worth.
“Are we using evidence in a systematic way to determine if we are fulfilling our fiduciary responsibility to those that pay our salaries?” Bonfield wondered.
One place that has used data to shape service is the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.”Police forces, fire departments do a lot of data gathering and examination of what’s going on where, and I think libraries need to embrace that,” said service operations manager Paula Brehm-Heeger.
Several years ago, her library did a formal study and, as a result, overhauled many of the ways librarians interact with patrons.
“We had this team of folks with this clipboard and this list of things and they walked around from area to area,” Brehm-Heeger said. “We had morning, afternoon, evening, weekend observations to get some good snapshots of what was going on.”
“People will tell you what they like and what they want, if you just let them, we were trying to get at—not what people’s idea of what a library is—but what a library really is based on what people are doing,” Brehm-Heeger said.
Some people were reading, but lots of them weren’t. Many patrons wanted help with technology and resumes. There were also lots and lots of teens hanging out.
Brehm-Heeger says when she was growing up the expectation was that she’d go to the library “be quiet and sit and read.”
“I’m a Gen-Xer and both of my parents worked, so after school, I was one of those kids that went to the library all the time,” she said. “Sometimes I caused a little havoc and I was asked to leave the library on more than one occasion in my middle school years. But I loved the library.”
As a result of the observation study, Cincinnati created a TeenSpace with lots of computers, some quiet zones and a place where noise and teen chatter is welcome.