Librarians vs. the web

As I’ve said before, one of my library gigs is at a law firm (didn’t know law firms had libraries?  See my post on librarians being everywhere).

I’m a clerk, so I get books shelf-ready and take care of circulation.  Over the years, I’ve noted a lot of things about working in the legal and library spheres, and I’ve determined that the pervading frustration among law librarians and library staffers is evermore the constant tussle between libraries and the web.  Do you know what is most annoying?  When we offer several answers to your queries, when we put up signs advertising seminars and workshops, and you’re walking by and you look at us and either say or don’t say: “But can’t I just find it on the Internet?”

I’m not sure what the leading cause of death among librarians is, but it might be from spontaneous combustion at hearing that very phrase.

I get this question a lot as a clerk, and as a library student in general.  Don’t get me wrong, librarians love the Internet. The American Association of Law Libraries’ national conference was this past weekend, and there was no small number of sessions on digital literacy, online collections and so on (at least by my quick perusal of the conference schedule).  And note that I’m not talking about a tug between print materials v. the Internet.  That’s a different discussion entirely.  The disconnect here is between letting a trained intermediary find your information, and doing it yourself.

Search engines like Google have advanced search interfaces. Using them can help narrow down the results by making your query more specific.

I know the latter option is exceptionally appealing.  Do you know how hard and awkward it is to convey to a librarian exactly what you’re looking for?  Even if it’s not about something like an awkward rash, and it’s just where to find the a foreign film DVD?  I bet you do, which is why the Internet is your first stop rather than First Public.  Or, maybe you’re just lazy (hey, that’s fine:  I’m writing this at 10 a.m. in my cutoff sweats and my unbrushed hair).

All of these reasons and more explain why people prefer solo web searching to asking for help.  Yes, yes:  everybody loves Google.  It has a cool-looking interface (that’s a nerd term for you meaning the search box), and if you work there, you can go in your pajamas.  Sure.  Google is awesome, no one is denying that, and the user (you and me!) is closer to finding information than ever before.  I use Google almost constantly.  There is nothing wrong with Google.


Think about how you use Google (and other web search engines).  Maybe you forgot the name of the restaurant you went to last week, or you want to know how far it is from you to D.C.  To paint with the broadest brush, usually we use Google for simpler things.  And most of us only use the results that show up in the first page or so.  But Google doesn’t necessarily sort results by relevancy to your question.  And have you ever looked at the sheer, unsorted, untamed return you get from even the simplest of searches?  At this moment, searching just for “Barack Obama” yields 49,300,000 results.  Seriously?  How can you find what you’re looking for?  How do you even know?

This is where librarians step in to help.  They are trained to still your growing panic, sort that material, and even to develop what they call “search strings” (basically complex search terms) to help narrow the results before even hitting “Enter” (sorry, Mac users).  And it might be hard to articulate what you’re looking for because even you don’t fully know.  Asking a librarian helps you figure it out.  Librarians are web professionals, to be quite frank.  And they know where to find information on online databases that Google and other search engines (like Bing and Yahoo!) can’t reach.

Because what if you need some serious medical research for a relative?  Or, if you’re a lawyer, some legal research for a case?  Or, think about this:  do you want a lawyer of yours doing a Google search for case law, or do you want him or her using the online resources (like Westlaw and LexisNexis) provided through the firm’s library?  Where the information is cited, checked and validated?

So, the web is a powerful tool.  But it’s far from organized, and most web content is not even findable.  Did you know all those search engines, as huge as they are, have to index each and every website they want to pull back on a search?  That’s how you find the information.  They have algorithms to do this (and other things called “crawlers”), but right now it’s still impossible to index everything, and some things are blocked by pay walls or ID/password security.

Your librarians know what they’re doing, and how to wiggle around that stuff.  They are literally standing (or sitting) by, behind the Reference desk, waiting for your questions.  So use the Web!  But use it wisely, and with a librarian friend.

(Feature photo by Jordan Woods)