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The Librarian is Dead, Long Live the Librarian
Clay Hathorn

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The onslaught of digitized information that is fundamentally shifting the way librarians ply their trade is certainly doing a number on Cameron Johnson's daily routine. Johnson, a reference librarian at the downtown public library in Everett, Washington, is a trained specialist in indexing, accessing, and managing information. With the introduction of several CD-ROM-equipped computers to the library a while back, Johnson now spends a big slice of his day instructing puzzled patrons on the intricacies of the backspace key.

"This is not a real hotbed of technology," Johnson says of the city of 70,000 people just north of Seattle. "We have a lot of people who are computer illiterate. We have to show them how to use this stuff. You ought to see them strike the keyboard. They hit it like they're pushing the button to launch a nuclear attack."

The digital revolution is leading to big changes for librarians. Beyond such mundane encounters as Johnson's teaching keyboard basics to the technically challenged, opposng views about the future of the profession have arisen in the hushed halls of library land. One theory says that the rise of digitized information threatens to render librarians practically obsolete. This is the Redundancy Theory. Another says that it will thrust librarians into a more prominent role as masters of information in a world increasingly reliant on information. This is known as the Masters of the Universe theory.

"There is a controversy within the field," says Jim Dwyer, a librarian at Chico State University in California. "There are some traditional librarians who can't keep pace with the technology. There are some other technocrats who have just jumped on the bandwagon to make everything computerized."

Dodo or CyberBird?

One side of the coin says that the growth of the Internet, the World Wide Web, and digitized information means that most of what has been traditionally printed is available online, or soon will be. With huge amounts of information easy to reach on the Internet, so the argument goes, the need for bricks-and-mortar library buildings and flesh-and-blood librarians is reduced.

While it's true that librarians face an uncertain future, this viewpoint is often overstated and therefore misunderstood. One dim-witted Florida legislator recently proposed spending no money for materials for the state's university library system because he mistakenly believed that Harvard University's entire collection is now digitized and available for free. It's not.

On the other side of the coin, some argue that the rise of digitized information is an opportunity to elevate the role of the librarian. A leading proponent of this view is Hal Varian, the new dean of the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California at Berkeley, formerly the School of Library and Information Studies. The name change indicates the school's new emphasis on teaching the management of digital information--a shift that bolsters Varian's contention that digital information managers will play an invaluable part in the Information Age. "There will be a larger role for people who organize, filter, and locate information," he recently told Wired magazine.

Also reflecting this shift is the emergence of a new breed of librarian: The "cybrarian"--a specialist in locating information on the Internet for businesses and corporations. Generally the bewildering proliferation of information channels seems only to increase the need for navigational help. "Librarians are more important now," says Kathleen Ouye, city librarian in San Mateo, California, "People need help, they need librarians--and that's good."

Face-to-Face Time

As with most polarized arguments, the resolution will probably lie somewhere in the gaping middle, between the Onset of Extinction and the Rise to Preeminence. Moreover, any outcome is some way ahead. Johnson's experience in Everett shows that the flow of technological change is still just a trickle in some areas. "We don't even have Internet access at the (reference) desk," he says.

Most librarians welcome technological change but also see the value in their historical function of assisting people to find information--whether digitized or between the covers of a book. Steven Herb, a library director and professor at Pennsylvania State University, agrees that what librarians do best is guide the public to the right information. "With access wide open on the Internet everyone has the chance to find something wonderful next to something really stupid," he says, "Sometimes the facts laid bare aren't enough. What librarians do is help provide context."

Others agree. "We play a cultural role," Dwyer says, "in the sense that librarians have traditionally applied a broader range of knowledge to pieces of information. I think it's high tech and high touch. Bring in high tech, but give it a human face. And that face is the face of a librarian."

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