Librarians and the Book: A Marriage of Convenience

By Deane Barker on October 15, 2012

Over the last few months, I’ve been reading The Portable MLIS: Insights from the Experts.  This is an anthology of writings about the work of the professional librarian (“MLIS” refers to a Masters of Library and Information Science – the standard degree for a librarian).

This book has introduced me to the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association, which is interesting.  I’ll quote a few principles below.

  • We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.
  • We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.
  • We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.

The code was written in 1939, and has been revised a half-dozen times since (most revisions were quite minor).

Reading this code has taught me that librarians are concerned with nothing but the distribution of information, not really the information itself.  To the professional librarian, their job is to give you access to the information you want.  Perhaps more importantly, they don’t care about two things:

  1. The format of that information
  2. What you do with that information (as a professional; personally, they might care, but they set this aside)

The job of a librarian is to envelop the information.  I’m using “envelop” here to invoke the idea of an “envelope” in which something gets delivered.  They help find the information and deliver it in a metaphorical envelope of service.  Whether the letter inside is typewritten, handwritten, or a series of pictures is not their concern.  Nor is your reaction to it.

There’s a purity to this that gives me conviction that librarianship will survive and even thrive in the “age of information” we currently live in.  We will always have books and physical libraries to house them, but the future of information is no-doubt digital.

Go read that code of ethics, however, and note the number of times the word “book” appears.  I’ll give you a hint.  Zero.

At the risk of being painfully obvious, librarianship isn’t about books.  It never was.  It’s always been about information.  And the demise of the book and the rise of the Internet isn’t going to kill librarians as much as it’s going to make them more important than ever.

Last year, I wrote this:

And this, I think, is where the future of the librarian lies: the art of information architecture and literacy.  Given all the outlets for information now, how do we organize it so it can be found, and how do we teach people how to manage it and use it to solve problems?

The ALA code has made me more sure of this than ever before. 

Information is universal, and the professional librarian has only had an accidental (forced?) relationship with the printed book.  It just so happens that this has been the most efficient way to distribute information for the last several hundred years.  Therefore, the pairing of librarians and books was simply a marriage of convenience – it was the easiest way to do what the librarian wanted: distribute information.

I think even the most committed librarian will admit that this specific relationship is winding down.  It was a great relationship, but it ran its natural course and the advent of more efficient methods has brought about a more attractive partner.

Regardless of the format, information is forever.  And since true librarians have only ever really cared about pure information, the profession shouldn’t even skip a beat.

(If you’re a librarian, you may have just read this post and said to yourself, “Well...yeah."  And that’s fine – this post wasn’t written for you, because you understand.  I’m venturing a guess that a large part of the population doesn’t understand the true essence of librarianship.  This post was for them.)

Comments (3)

Pat Gracey says:

I’m all for digital content and probably read almost as many e-books as books. I probably read more online articles than print. Still I think to say the relationship we have with books is winding down is possibly overstated. Wouldn’t it be better to say were just getting more promiscuous professionally and culturally?

Jim A. says:

The critical difference between hard copy and electronic is NOT whether any trees died in the production or whether you read it on a screen. When you purchase a hard copy, the rights that you have and don’t have are determined by copyright law. When you license content online, the rights you have are determined by the contract that you have signed with the provider. And those contracts of adhesion usually provide FAR fewer rights for the purchaser. This, more than anything is what is preventing the digital age from fulfilling the starry-eyed dreams that the technologists have been promising. Rather than freeing information, ever more of it has been locked up behind increasingly effective paywalls.

Adina Mishkoff Kischel says:

Deane, thank you for this! Like you said, librarians (I’m MLS, Pratt Inst 1974) will heartily agree and understand what you wrote. It’s exactly what I’ve always said, and why I originally became a business research librarian – Librarians don’t KNOW all the answers, but they know where to find them! I think some of our work has been taken over by the Internet since instead of coming to us librarians who knew exactly which reference book/directory had the specific answer you were looking for, people can now Google most of these queries themselves. I have since moved abroad and away from my profession, but still love finding information for myself and others, through whatever means available. THAT, as you said, will never change.