The Reference Collection and the Internet

My argument has always been that technology has not really so much changed things has it has added to things. Libraries, for instance, are not being replaced by the internet. Not really. People still have the same needs they had before, and if anything they may just be more certain that what they need doesn’t exist. One of the things I’ve learned since being at library school is that while google is an amazing tool, most people haven’t got a clue how to use it. It’s way more powerful than most people can even comprehend, let alone use.

And in the end, public libraries exist to provide light fiction, and academic libraries exist to provide scholarship and subscriptions to scholarly journals. Outside of, of course, the building itself, the hardware, the software, and the people. You see where I’m going. I don’t think the internet threatens libraries at all, and I’ve been flogging that half-dead horse for some time.

But going through the reference collection shows me where in the internet has actually changed things and made parts of it obsolete.

The thing about reference, really, is that the layman doesn’t really understand what it is. I’m sure I’m not the only person to scoff at the concept of an encyclopedia (what, you’re too dumb to go straight to an actual book?!), but that’s just the beginning of it. Even as a Ph.D student I had no idea how much organization had gone into information, I didn’t realize there were ways to find things I needed outside the library catalogue. I think generally people don’t know what reference sources really are and how much they can do for you.

But it’s amazing how many reference sources are being superceded by the internet. As Liz tells us, there used to be a time when sources would be gold to the librarian because there was no where else to find lists of films produced in a certain year, or indexes of first and last lines, and so forth. There are whole chunks of the reference section that could be safely replaced by a nice google input box.

Pictures, for instance. “I want a picture of,” questions. Why would anyone ask a reference librarian for a picture of, say, the Andrea Doria, when you can just go here?

There’s a sense of being on the brink while walking through reference. Not because of the librarians, not by any means. I don’t think there’s any danger of reference librarians going extinct. It’s the sources. The print indexes of things, this sort of desperate attempt to impose some order on the orderless. So much of that has been superceded, if not by google, than by digital versions, more or less complete.

I’m not being nostalgic about it, really. But there’s definitely a skill that’s disappearing in all this, or maybe just an instinct. Liz has these instincts about where to look on the shelves, which sources might answer which question, how to flip to the index and what to train her eye on. It’s these sorts of things that are disappearing, the coping mechanisms librarians developed in order to cope with the print reference sources. Like once the learning curve was incredibly great, and now it’s lessened, leaving them with a tendency to flip through books in a particular way, or to see the universe of knowledge in LC terms rather than database queries.

Sort of interesting, that’s all.