Cartoon of a book and a 
computer battling to the death.
Drawing by Jay Leek

A few years ago a competent librarian might have had to explain why he or she took up such a strange profession, more suited, after all, to recluses and bookworms than to warm-blooded American fans of Forest Gump. No more. "I am an information scientist," or "I am a computer pundit," serves to strike awe into the individual who a few months...ago would have sneered at "librarian." - William Katz (Introduction to Reference Work, Vol. I, 1996)

Librarians or Information Specialists?

Big changes are happening in the world of library science. Online database searching and the wealth of information available on the Internet has forever changed the face of the field. Indeed, a professional school is now called a College of Library and Information Science. More and more "librarians" are taking positions as technology managers, online specialists, and web and database designers. At first this was viewed only as liberation: "I just remember how marvelous the phenomenon was. I never had to go through the bound volumes of Government Reports Announcements again!"- Reva Basch, online editor and information consultant (O'Leary, 1996). As time went on, people began to fear that the machine would take their jobs.

"No machine can do our job!"
"That's what they said in Payroll."

- Katharine Hepburn and Joan Blondell as special librarians in the 1957 film "Desk Set"
on the arrival of a computer into the Research & Reference Department

Obsolete or Essential?

Spencer Tracy plays a computer specialist in "Desk Set" who reassures the four reference librarians at the Federal Broadcasting Company that computers (called an "electronic brain" in the movie) won't get them fired, but will give them more work! When end-user databases were first introduced, "most online searching had been done by professional searchers in libraries and information centers... But why go through a middleman, when millions of people could search themselves?...Many online searchers were wary of these developments, perceiving them as threats to their own positions." (O'Leary, 1997)

Fears about the role of librarians in the Information Age still abound. Now there is an "online profession" in which librarians can take part in such roles as consultants, trainers, systems designers, and webmasters. "The librarian, for the first time, is able to be seen as a professional with a set of skills and contributions comparable to those of other professions, that have in some cases overshadowed them for so long...Those who don't feel comfortable with change are going to be marginalized," according to Steve Arnold, an executive at an information technology company (ibid).

Librarianship during the Electronic Revolution

Librarianship is currently facing some convulsions due to the growth of electronic media and its attendant research capabilities. Many librarians feel they have a good grasp on the new information possibilities and their own role in shaping an electronic revolution but much of the general public believes that librarianship will become an obsolete profession. Most librarians agree that change in the profession must occur but there is the danger that 'information specialists' will become mere technicians rather than the providers of valuable research and reference services that they have been in the past. Librarians in fact have not come up with a new word for their profession which would effectively define what they do in relation the acquisition of knowldge by users. Forecasts about what the recent future of librarians will be should take into account that not every library patron has his own PC or the electronic access or expertise to be a cyber citizen.

Media Death, Media Birth

Whether the death of the book or paper culture as a whole is imminent remains to be seen but major technical advances will have to be made before we can call out a Bookmobile-size hearse. It must be said that print has been a long-lived medium and the newer media that will replace it will surely not be viable for such a long time. It will be interesting to see if curling up with a laptop that simulates the feel and sound (i.e. rustling of pages) of a book can be as popular as the real thing. Luckily for bibliophiles, books are not quite yet a thing of nostalgia but the death knells could be sounding for certain kinds of reference books.

What's clear is that the profession is changing. Time will tell if the way librarians are perceived by the public will change as well.

Visit our Resources page for more material on changing technology and image.

Thanks to artist Jay Leek for the use of his image "Bookfight" which originally appeared on the website of the San Jose State University School of Library and Information Science.

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