November 29, 2009

Little Know-It-All

Librarians are know-it-alls. I know this because I'm a Librarian. We usually say things like "Librarians don't know everything, but we know where to find everything", but this is just something we say to avoid embarrassment. No, we are know-it-alls, and sometimes not the good kind.

I can't just let someone continue believing something I know is incorrect. For example, a co-worker of mine came into work (my other job, not the library) one morning and he was super-stoked because he had reserved a suite at a Las Vegas hotel for his bachelor party. It wasn't just any suite, it was the Rain Man Suite. I was really impressed and happy for him, but there was one problem: The Rain Man Suite isn't at the hotel he booked at, it's at Caesar's Palace. I know this because I remember seeing the movie in 1988 and I stored the information in my elephant's brain in the rare chance I would need to refer to it for Jeopardy! or situations like this one. Before it even occurred to me that this tidbit of information had the capability to bring feelings other than joy to my co-worker I blurted out, in true know-it-all fashion: "That's totally not the Rain Man Suite at all. You're wrong! It's at Caesars Palace. See" ... and I Googled the information on my computer, proudly displaying the imdb results it for all to see. He promptly took me to the website he booked at. There it was, plain as day. His hotel was advertising that they had the Rain Man Suite. So not true! I steadfastly maintained that he was wrong and got totally duped by faulty marketing. My co-worker was very disappointed and it finally occurred to me that I had ruined his bachelor party. He was quick to point out that I had indeed ruined his bachelor party.

Why was it so important for me to be right? Why couldn't I have just let him go to his bachelor party and stay at his hotel and hold the secret til my death? One answer: Librarians are biologically predisposed to disseminate the most correct information at all times. This includes situations that may incur embarrassment for others.

Here's another example from library school. I was in my Cataloging and Classification class. My professor was having trouble remembering the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll. I had my laptop in front of me so I Googled "Lewis Carroll pseudonym" and came up with "Charles Dodgson". I promptly put my hand up and answered the query to my professor's satisfaction. Gold star. Unfortunately, one of my peers also had a laptop in front of him. He raised his hand after I had answered the query and stated: "Actually, it's Charles Lutwidge Dodgson". Uh buh! Are you kidding me? Was it really necessary to correct me and embarrass me in front of all my peers for that? Apparently so, because Librarians are programmed to disseminate the most correct information at all times regardless of other people's feelings. I was mortified! Needless to say, I never raised my hand in that class again and made a lifelong enemy out of my classmate, but I clearly didn't learn how my patrons would feel if I corrected them as the Rain Man Suite debacle happened long after my Cataloging and Classification mortification.

I remember reading an article for Information Sources and Services on the topic of whether the correct answer is the right one. The resolve: Sure, but it might upset the patron. I have learned this lesson over and over during my internship at Stanford Health Library. Giving the correct answer is very difficult especially when the outcome isn't a positive one; however, is the correct answer the right one when you work in a health library? Absolutely. Having the most correct and up-to-date information is critical when it comes to health. Is it difficult to hand over an article about cancer that ultimately spells bad news for the patron? You bet it is, but it might end up saving their life. This is perhaps the reason why I didn't learn the embarrassing lesson in Cataloging and Classification and why I chose to ruin my co-worker's bachelor party. As it turns out, the little tidbit of disappointing information served a positive purpose in the long run. My co-worker called the hotel he had booked at and complained. The hotel ended up comping him a bunch of extra stuff and he saved a boatload of money for his bachelor party. Although he still hasn't forgiven me for embarrassing him and ruining his bachelor party, I'm sure he's thankful that he knows a know-it-all Librarian, at least until the next time I take him to school.

November 21, 2009

Let's get Digital!

Books or digital files? Where should a library direct its future and funding? I understand why this is such a struggle; I struggle with it too. While I was an MLIS student, I enjoyed being able to access the majority of the articles I needed on my laptop from the comfort of my own home. I would become irate when I couldn't find the article I needed in an e-journal and had to physically go to the campus library. I also hated having to print out the article or copy it from a book. Who needs all that extra paper anyway? On the other hand, I still buy books. I, like many other librarians, am building a small personal library that contains everything from children's books to scholarly periodicals. I just received two new books in the mail today.

The struggle with going totally digital is that the book is such a big part of human culture; however, so is the computer. One library has decided to make the switch to a totally digital collection. Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, MA has gone full throttle digital. With this change comes many differing views on what this means for libraries, the most prominent being: Can you call it a library if you don't have any books in it? Perhaps one of the biggest problems for librarians is an entirely digital collection seems to negate the purpose of a library building and (gasp) librarians. On the other hand, while whole libraries can be digitized, a large percentage of the population lack the means to access digital collections. P.S. I see a huge opportunity here!

Ultimately, Cushing was able to make this change because it is a well-funded private school. Unless schools across America get the same kind of funding, most publicly funded schools will be waiting years before they can make the change to digital, if digital is the best choice for libraries. Cushing will serve as a guinea pig for other schools hoping to make the same change. Some of the anxiety surrounding this issue stems from the feeling that there's no going back to a paper collection. This is not so. Books will probably never totally disappear from our culture. I think libraries will continue to offer a hybrid model to their users. There will be some books and some digital books. In the event that libraries do go full throttle digital, the transformation will be more gradual than Cushing's. Until there is enough funding and support to go all digital, librarians can breath a sigh of relief, but continue to focus on developing their digital skills so they can be ready to lead their patrons into the future.