Friday, June 10, 2011

You need a Masters degree for THAT!?

"Why would a librarian need a masters? Don't they just shelve books all day?"

From the lips of parents. Mine, in fact. See, when I told my mom and dad that I wanted to go to graduate school to become a librarian I got the standard "Didn't you think this through?" look.

It's a fine question. Working in the library isn't a common first-choice for a career. Tell me if you find the following definition accurate:

librarian, n. A person who works in a storehouse for books known as a "library," making sure the books are in order and directing others to the location of said books. A truly quaint vestige of a non-digital past, considering you can get pretty much everything you want off Google. Usually known for irritably shushing the slightest noise inside the library.

That last part is kind of dismal, isn't it? Who would want to do that? Not I, said the duck. What's worse, why on Earth would you need a masters for it? Spoiler alert: you wouldn't. Fortunately, the librarians I've known do so much more than the individual just described.

Let's see what the ol' academic standby, Oxford English Dictionary has to say on the subject:

librarian, n. The keeper or custodian of a library.

Eh, that one doesn't really work for me, either. It's just not specific enough. I'm going to give the OED a run for their money and supply another definition:

librarian, n. A person associated with a library possessing specialized training in providing assistance with personal learning from a variety of information formats.

Still not perfect, but in my opinion more accurate as to what a librarian actually does. Notice I didn't specifically mention books here. There are a lot of other ways to learn things, and books are an efficient way to do this. In fact, for hundreds of years books were the most efficient way of sharing information. They still do a great job of it, and to my mind aren't obsolete in the slightest. If the book was stolen or damaged beyond repair, however, all the information contained within it was no longer available. Books need to be physically accounted for and repaired, and this is the traditional purview of a librarian. Many librarians continue to do exactly this every day, sharing information in this way.

But what about all the other ways we learn? The internet, for example, is not contained in a book. There's a lot of information there, and much of it is accurate and may be used to learn and improve our quality of life. Conversely, a LOT of it is not worth the energy it takes to make it light up your monitor. The question is now how to navigate through everything that exists out there into finding what it is you want.

Enter the librarian. See, anyone who can move a book off a shelf and read it can find information and use it. Punch the letters on a keyboard and put words in a search engine and you're doing the same thing, only a little faster. The difficulty is in knowing which book to pull off which shelf, or what words to use in what search engine out of the billions of possibilities.

This is what a librarian excels at: knowing how to efficiently use time to choose the right option. Librarians understand how knowledge is organized, why it is done that way, and most importantly, how it can be used. All those words in all those books mean nothing if don't apply to your situation. A librarian can help you cut through the fat to get to the meat.

Learning how to do that for people takes time, though. Librarians go to graduate school to learn from experts how to do this well. That masters degree represents a focused period of time spent learning how to navigate and utilize the ever-expanding information base. That's the trick: we can all get to something, but a librarian can get you to the right thing.

1 comment:

Tracy said...

I like your definition! Great post Thomas.