Why visit a library?

Last week I blogged about letting your friendly librarians help you use the Internet for serious research.  I still maintain that letting librarians help you use the web is one of the many wonderful reasons to go to the library!  I had several discussions with folks about it in the week following.  One of them was with my dear friend, who we’ll call Hal for now.  Hal and I often email back and forth during our waking hours at our desks, and Hal, a self-proclaimed Internaut and web-lover, had some things to say about my assertions last week.  He has graciously allowed me to repost them here:

Hal@deskjob.com:  Hullo! I just read your post on the internet and libraries. One question in response – what can libraries do that I, in an Internet-savvy culture, can’t do myself?

Me@lawlibrary.com:  You may be internet-savvy, but you don’t have the resources to reach what we call “the Deep Web.”  Things behind pay walls or password walls.  Or to find things standard search engines can’t reach.  Libraries have the budget to buy access to those things.

Me:  Another thought:  librarians familiarize themselves with specific databases.  Some databases have controlled vocabularies.  So the user might be searching in, let’s say, JSTOR for “Merovingian court etiquette,” but the librarian happens to know that this specific database has decided not to use the word “Merovingian” in its index, but instead indexes all articles referring to this subject under “Frankish.”  So users are not pulling anything back in a search using “Merovingian,” but if they let the librarian do it or ask them, they’ll find their information.  This isn’t actually true about JSTOR, but I needed to think of a database off the top of my head.  You get the idea.

Hal:  Harumph. (Yes, he said “Harumph.”  I didn’t add that.)  I know that and hate it.

I just don’t think there’s anything a librarian can do that a skilled researcher can’t. Or, to rephrase it in an appropriately positive light, because I love librarians, “A skilled researcher should be as adept at searching as a librarian.” But now I’ve argued to the point where we agree again – most people aren’t skilled researchers.

One other semantic detail to point out. You heavily imply that the Internet is disorganized. But it’s not, when you consider that Google is the de facto card-catalog of the web, and that’s what Google officially believes. It’s really more of a philosophical point.

Me:  Lol Hal, librarians are skilled researchers.  It’s like a synonym.

And the Internet is disorganized, whether or not you’d like to admit it.  Because the Internet is so vast, when you search, you don’t know if you’re getting the best source, or just a source.  And Google and other engines can’t permanently prevent against “search engine optimization,” which is when an individual or company manipulates the algorithm in order to get a link for their product to float to the top of a search, even though it may be completely unrelated to what you’re looking for.  Plus the very infrequent peer-reviewing of web content makes most of the information unreliable.  Not necessarily untrue, but unreliable in the citations.  I think it’s fine for just finding something out for personal use, but in terms of relying on it wholly for research which you might be professionally responsible for, it’s still a poor idea.  Not that it can’t get there one day, though.

Me:  Can I publish this on my blog??

Hal:  Of course you can post it.

I have a bit more to say, but I think it can be boiled down to something like this: when using the internet for research of any kind, use critical thinking to evaluate the authenticity and bias of anything you find. Furthermore, be aware of all resources that are available to you: private databases, librarians, etc.

PS – check these out:



Me:  I want you to read what you just wrote, and then picture yourself saying it to the typical college student, mother of four, or elderly couple.


But seriously, that’s something we absolutely have to teach students. Or not. We could just let evolution winnow them out naturally.  The truth is, Hal and I largely agree, we just come at the problem from different angles.  Hal himself is a numismatist, and deals with the cataloging and organization of coinage, so his concept of librarian work is actually quite solid.  And Hal does have a point about savvy Internet skills being an absolute necessity for students.  The problem is getting people’s attention long enough to teach them some valuable but easy skills for web use.

Be careful on the interwebs, kiddies!

On a related and yet unrelated note, here’s another reason to use your library:  quiet.  This isn’t coming from me, folks!  A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that “quiet is making a comeback.”  In a survey of several academic libraries, the Chronicle learned from the librarians that students are adamantly seeking spaces where group work and even technological devices aren’t allowed.  Many students say that the clattering, clicking, and beeping of keyboards, cell phones and other smart devices disturb their study, especially since they often come to the library to escape the dorm’s noisiness.

Imagine that!  Wanting libraries to be quiet!  And many of the libraries have obliged by creating levels of quiet space within their buildings (just as they obliged when students needed more space for noisier collaborative work).  What will be next, shelves for booksAnd a cataloging system to promote their findability?!  I can hardly imagine.  I need to go lie down.

Check out that smart article if you don’t believe me!

One thought on “Why visit a library?

  • Sara Michael
    July 31, 2012 at 8:16 AM

    Another reason to visit the library: free books that you can borrow for free and read for free and then return for others to enjoy for free! (Or in my case, for a nominal late fee.)
    And for their story and song time for the kids, which my boy loves. Speaking of him and libraries, I hope he grows up in a world where libraries still exist and maybe make a comeback.

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