Why Librarianship Endures

Gentle Readers will always need Gentle Guidance

August 31, 2010

Once when I was working the reference desk, a seemingly normal community college student (no exposed underwear,  multiple tongue piercings, neck tattoos, or a message shaven into his hair) asked why so many Civil War battles were fought in national parks. He wanted information on the subject because he had decided to write a research paper about it. He felt it was very unfortunate that the army had trespassed on these national parks because in his words, “They are environmental treasures that should always be kept clean and safe. Plus, cannon shots might start forest fires.”

As someone who is very interested in reducing my own ecological footprint, I was quite impressed with his passion for Planet Earth. I was not as impressed with his grasp of history. Working through the problem together, we pretty much decided that wooded and mountainous areas might provide a strategic military advantage to one side or the other. We then went through the historical timeline and discovered that voila the Civil War was fought in the 1860s and the national parks were established in 1916. Then we moved on to some conclusions about Civil War battles and national parks.

While I had some initial concerns that someone so clueless could enter a community college, I quickly supplanted my concern with complacency. Some people are very skeptical about the future viability of librarianship in a high-tech world. My answer to that? Our patrons keep us in business.

Here’s an interesting fact: Dictionary.com lists 22 synonyms for “moron.” For its listed antonym of “moron”—“brain”—there are a mere 13 synonyms. What does it say about English-speakers that we’re nearly twice as effective at describing stupidity as intelligence? The reason for that, I am sure, is that there are far more stupid people in the world than smart ones—and I don’t think that’s changing. In fact, you might even conclude that the smarter machines get, the less people have to use their own personal brains, and we all know that brains atrophy when they are underused. As a result, librarians will be around for a long, long time.

Here’s what I’m afraid of: Scientists and engineers might come up with a “smart” chip or a “stupid” vaccine.

A woman who lives across the street from me just had a very expensive, high-tech pacemaker put into her heart. She says it will keep her alive for at least 20 more years. She’s 80. “Do you really want to live that long?” I asked.

Her answer was interesting. “Yes, because in 20 years, they’ll come up with an even better pacemaker that will keep me alive for another 20 years.”

“That would make you 120,” I said. She just smiled.

You’d be surprised at the number of people walking around with man-made body parts. It’s just a matter of time before we become completely robotic. It’s inevitable that some biomedical research company will come up with a “brain enhancement” insert, and it’s just as inevitable that the federal government will mandate that these inserts be surgically implanted into the brains of people with average to low IQs. Then—and only then—will I worry about the future of our proud and noble profession.

So . . . keep the reference questions coming, folks! And librarians, instead of complaining about clueless patrons, embrace them. They are your future.

Will Manley has furnished provocative commentary on librarianship for over 30 years and in nine books on the lighter side of library science. He blogs at Will Unwound.