Role of the Librarian

I think one of the most intriguing points brought up in the readings this week was by Peter Morville, who reports that up to 80% of our information queries about medicine are answered by the internet (5). I believe this represents a significant concern, as was implied by the Morville reading. As an example, when the author was tasked with improving the function of a non-profit cancer information website, he found that while if he searched for the generic “cancer” the website would come up prominently, it was less visible for searches of specific cancer types. Instead, private companies with private interests came up in response to these latter searches, presenting the searcher with all sorts of flimflam and snakeoil.

Herein I believe the future and emerging role of the librarian is revealed. We librarians can serve as mentors in the field of the technology, introducing the illiterate to new and exciting ways to access information in a safe, reliable fashion. Technology without the application of wisdom is a recipe for disuse and disaster, and we can offer that wisdom; as you said we can “bridge” those without tools to solutions, while ensuring that they do so in a fashion which is most amenable to happiness. I think over time we librarians are going to shift into the role of tutor and guide, like Vergil in Dante’s Inferno. “Yes go on this computer and find your information in the place where we globally compile it, in all languages. But beware of X and Y, these are dubious sources.” In this fashion we will help diminish the digital divide, increase information literacy and connect those seeking information with good sources by teaching the ignorant on how to find it. Librarians will remain as useful as wise gateways to the unknown, yet in a new domain of access.

The second thing I want to bring up is the question of description. What I am about to speak of does not occur in the readings, but it is still an interesting corollary. The issue of finding the manpower, time and resources to catalog documents was brought up in the readings as a hurdle to overcome. A solution to cataloging the influx of data may not be found in librarians, or other professionals, but instead in gamers and voluntary user collaboration. Take the GWAP/ESP game, pet project of computer scientist Luis von Ahn, a simple multiplayer experience in which players have to describe an image using metadata (descriptors) while also matching what the other player picks. This game is behind the recent vast improvement in Google Image Search queries (which, as you may have noticed, now allows you to do all sorts of advanced searches), as the logoi derived from the game play has been imported into the search engine. The task of cataloging millions of images based on verbose descriptors would have proved impossible for a professional team, not to mention economically impractical. Yet, give the users of the internet a fun game where they have to guess what other people are thinking in describing an image, and you can catalog vast amounts of information for free.

My final point is that we should come to rely on collaboration not as a way of assuaging the complexity of our contemporary work, but rather, as an alternative to replace it. There are technological and creative solutions to our problems, but a tendency to hold to old forms. We might gain insights from the open source software communities, who have made completed great projects by utilizing the free and volunteered resources of the community. The future will only be successful as collaboration; we will achieve things by working as a whole, not from the top down.

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