The Librarian, the Professor, and the Internet

These days, it seems as if the internet and Google are co-extensive.

Much like Xerox — which back in the old days used to be how we referred to all copies, as in “I need to Xerox my syllabus” — or, if you grew up in the American South, Coke (Back in my high school days, when I would order a Coke at a restaurant, the server, whom we all called a waitress back then, would ask me what kind. She didn’t mean to ask whether I wanted a diet Coke or a Cherry Coke, but rather to inquire whether I wanted a cola, a lemon-lime drink, a grape soda, or what. Coke was just a generic term.) — these days Google just is where we go — or even what we do — when we want to find something out. With apologies to Bing, when I want to research something, the first thing I do is Google it. And I’m more surprised when Googling something fails to find what I need than when it succeeds.

But today I am wondering: what’s the proper relationship between technology and the library?

I don’t know that I can answer this question in full — certainly not in this post — but part of the answer must lie in the librarian’s use of technology to share (not disseminate) information.

Even in the age of Google, libraries play an important role in connecting knowledge production and knowledge use. Although the storage of information is a huge concern (pun intended) for libraries, library staff still tend to be quite focused on the users of the information they store. That’s key to what makes a library a good library.

What has me thinking about this is a recent experience I had with a librarian at the National Science Foundation. I was made aware of a document published in 1977 — a report to Congress by the National Science Board on Peer Review at NSF — that we need for our CAPR project. Believe it or not, I actually couldn’t find the document anywhere. I was shocked.

I contacted the NSF Historian, who referred me to the NSF Library. Perhaps, he suggested, they’d be willing to scan the document, making it into a pdf file, and send it to me. I wrote the Library on Monday, and this morning at 9am, the document appeared in my Inbox. I was filled with a sense of satisfaction at this exchange. I wanted to sing the praises of the NSF librarian from the top of the highest mountain (or blog).

But what’s so satisfying about this exchange? Had I been able to Google the document, I’d have had it on my desktop within seconds. (Google tells you every time the fractions of a second it takes them to find what you want.) If I am so used to instant gratification, what is it about the 2 day wait to get the document from the NSF Library that pleases me?

I suggest it’s something like the proper use of technology, wherein technology becomes (once again?) a means to an end rather than the end itself. [There's a kind of reverse categorical imperative here -- treat technology only as a means, never as an end in itself -- that seems at once right and deeply problematic (for instance, I was a big fan of the Cylons on the latest incarnation of Battlestar Gallactica).]

The library had a hard copy of the document, and the librarian had to scan the hard copy manually. This took some time, since it’s a 113 page document. Relative to Googling something that already exists in digital form, this manual process took forever. But given that folks are really busy, and given the drudgery of the task of manually scanning large documents; given the seeming rarity of this document, and given its inaccessibility, which is some combination of its physical distance from me, as well as its physical form (its existence as a ‘hard’ rather than as a ‘digital’ object) — something very cool happened.

Thanks, NSF Librarian, for making me reconsider my relationship to the internet.


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2 Responses to The Librarian, the Professor, and the Internet

  1. Robert Frodeman says:

    more generally, friction is a virtue.

  2. Steven Hrotic says:

    Nicholas Basbanes was doing research on one of his books on bibliophiles. He found he needed to lay his hands on a copy of a very specific edition, which he finally found in a rare books library in Boston. After it was retrieved, he noticed that it had never been checked out in the century since it was acquired. He idly commented to the librarian, “I wonder who they got it for?” The answer was immediate: “They got it for YOU, Mr. Basbanes.”

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