Sunday, June 24, 2012
A Spectre Is Haunting Librarians
A spectre is haunting librarians, especially reference librarians: the spectre of disintermediation. This refers to the process, usually resulting from computerization, by which the jobs of various "middlemen" are rendered obsolete. In addition to librarians, the following are among those now so menaced: travel agents, real estate agents, bank tellers, store check out clerks, newspaper journalists. Updating the metaphor to be in accord with the Atomic Age, one might compare disintermediation to one big nasty asteroid hurtling towards an entire planet of vocational dinosaurs. The rise of phenomena such as that online academic Wal-Mart, the University of Phoenix, threatens to add some college instructors to the ranks of those to be "disintermediated."
"Ask Jeeves" was the first web site on the Internet directly aimed at replacing reference librarians, especially those who work in public libraries. It probably was not an accident that this archetype of servility served as the avatar for a web site designed to "disintermediate" the reference librarian. In his short story "Brooksmith," the sole story in which Henry James commemorates a member of the servant class, Brooksmith the butler functions first of all as a librarian in the vast library of his master, Mr. Offord. James observes of Brooksmith that "A certain feeling for letters must have rubbed off on him from the mere handling of his master's books, which he was always carrying to and fro and putting back in their places."
Many library users evidence astonishment when they discover that "a certain feeling for letters" may have rubbed off on that Jeeves of the library, the reference librarian. Is it the location of the reference librarian, sitting as a kind of receptionist in front of the reference collection, that leads so many library users to conclude that he must not have any real knowledge of the contents of the volumes shelved behind him? I recall the telephone call in which a locally prominent clergyman told me that "I am looking for a kind of book with which you would not be familiar. It is a lexicon." Though I felt like telling the man that I had indeed run across a lexicon in my studies, I said nothing other than to determine what kind of lexicon he needed.
The foremost organization of librarians, the American Library Association, continues to produce a magazine which in one issue celebrates some library director, in another showcases new library buildings, in yet another has a feature article deploring low salaries for librarians, and in yet another presents an editorial urging the need to "recruit" more people to become students of library science. Not only is much of this not relevant to what rank and file librarians must face, it is positively detrimental to their interests. How well does this "compute"? Salaries are too low, so the solution is to add to the glut of graduates coming out of the library schools. Perhaps people who support this nonsense deserve the fate that awaits them.
[ This was originally written and posted in Nov. 2006, but nothing has happened since to justify changing it. ]