Librarians in the Digital Age: Part 1

I seem to be on a library/media tear right now. Last week I spoke at the Michigan librarians conference (MAME) and tomorrow it will be the New Jersey conference. Coincidentally, the PEW Internet and American Life project published a PowerPoint presentation delivered by the projects founding director, Lee Rainie, to the Metro – New York Library Council.

Most of the presentation was a fairly standard examination of the history of the digital native generation (PC to WWW to Palm to Napster to iPod to blogs to Wikipedia to to Skype to podcasts to YouTube), and a listing and descriptions of the DN’s choice of personal information devices and how they use them. There was also a sprinkling of Smart Mobs and Long Tail.

What caught my attention was the final few slides, where Rainie listed ten reasons why the future can belong to librarians. I’m listing them here, and inserting some comments from the perspective of someone with no formal knowledge of library science, but 25 years of experience in exploring the emerging digital information landscape.

  1. Nobody knows better than you how to manage information.
  2. Nobody knows better than you how to track down information.

    [One and to are undisputed. However, the library is seen as an institution of walls and the digital realm is something outside of those walls. I suspect that librarians need to figure out how to bring those walls down, or make them effectively transparent.]

  3. Nobody knows better than you about the importance of information standards – common ways to categorize, sort, and act on things.

    [Anyone who is struggling with Google, Wikipedia, hundreds of channels, seventy-five e-mails a day, etc. is starting to get this. However, all of these rules are changing as well, as the digital landscape becomes more participatory (read/write web). Librarians need to become vocal spokesmen and leaders in helping people learn to cope with and leverage the networked, digital, overwhelming information realm.]

  4. Nobody’s word about what’s truthful and what’s important has more credibility than yours.

    [Again, this is uncontested. However, the selling point is that “truthfulness” and “importance” have become fluid, and that the task of gatekeeper has become a personal responsibility, not simply the responsibility of the authorities. New skills. Who’s in a better position to teach them.]

  5. Nobody is in a better position than you to teach people about information and media literacy. Nobody is in a better position to be a watchdog of new systems of sorting information than you.

    [But what is information and media literacy? How many people ever talk about it? I believe that a case needs to be made that there is only one literacy, those basic skills necessary to effectively and responsibly use information to accomplish goals. That literacy has recently become many times more rich and exciting. Again, no one is in a better position.]

  6. Nobody is in a better position to be a watchdog of new systems of sorting information than you.

    [So pay attention and share.]

  7. Nobody is in a better position than you to teach the world about the history and built-in wisdom of credibility-assessment systems.
  8. Nobody is more empowered by professional creeds and training to articulate the rationale for freedom of speech than you.
  9. Nobody is in better shape to play a thoughtful, constructive role in debates about the value of information “property” and the meaning of copyright in an age where it takes a couple of minutes to download a brand new movie on BitTorrent – for free.
  10. Nobody can be as constructive in helping us think through the new norms and even new laws we need to develop about what information is public and what is private.

    [Seven through ten are no-brainers. However, librarians must learn to network. (Have any of you ever subscribed to the LM-NET mailing list for even a week? Sheesh! My hard drive was bulging from the strain.) No one knows better how to collaborate. But you have to get it outside your walls, and become an essential part of your community’s conversation. Get a column in the local newspaper. Attend city council meetings. Build a float for the your town’s most popular parade. Figure out how to make information about the information part of people’s conversations.]

I find it interesting that in selecting a picture for this blog from the Creative Commons collection at flickr, I had to go through three pages of photos before finding information (books). All of the previous pictures were of library buildings — the walls.

Rainie, Lee. “DIGITAL NATIVES:How today’s youth are different from their ‘digital immigrant’ eldersand what that means for libraries.” PEW Internet and American Life Project.27 Oct 2006. PEW Internet and American Life Project. 29 Oct 2006<>.

Dredrewhonolulu, “La Bibliotheque Publique Juive de Montreal.” Dredrewhonolulu’s Photostream. 28 Oct 2006. 29 Oct 2006 <>.

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6 thoughts on “Librarians in the Digital Age: Part 1”

  1. David:

    Great post! I think many of us are looking in the same place right now. I wrote a blog post the other day that had a somewhat different take on the same issue. I made the case, like yourself, that there is ‘one literacy’ and that teachers and librarians need to embrace it. I don’t know how to make it happen any faster, but several of the points you make ring true to me! The best analogy was the idea of breaking down the walls of the current library structure or at least find ways to make the walls that do exist ‘transparent’ to all.

    “To clarify what I mean, I think that teachers and the educational establishment have been barriers to the ‘new literacy’ in our schools. The skills that we think constitute ‘information literacy’ in the past truly support and enhance what we think of as ‘traditional literacy’ skills. Currently, we think of literacy as ‘possessing’ a certain number of facts and the ability to apply them to situations that present themselves to us in our everyday life. In the society our students will live in, it will be impossible for them to ‘possess’ all of the knowledge that will be necessary to work in the society of the future. The current definition of ‘Information Literacy’ includes: defining, locating, selecting/analyzing and organizing/synthesizing. It is these last two sets of skills that are the most important to our students.”

    Many of our students are already doing the ‘selecting/analyzing’ and the ‘organizing/synthesizing’ part of the equation, the people in education just don’t recognize the terms our students use to describe these skills. (mashup, remix, etc.)

    Miguel Guhlin also has a post today on the subject of libraries and ‘literacy’ skills.

  2. Thanks for sharing this from the conference. I’m glad to hear that others perceive how well positioned librarians are to take on these challenges! I do actually think many librarians are trying to do all these things and that it is really an exciting time to be a librarian. (or cybrarian or webrarian, or whatever term you want to call it!)

    I know I see it as a primary role of my job to connect teachers with new tools, and to help teachers and students use new tools to find information and to share it and create with it.

    I just returned from the Internet Librarian Conference, and Internet Schools Conference. It’s exciting to see so many librarians who are working on the cutting edge of technology or who are there to learn more about it.

    Librarians are wiki-ing, blogging, (mine is, tagging, creating folksonomies, and flickring. (Check out the librarian group on flickr, for example!)

    Most libraries have their catalogs available online for searching at home or at school, use databases also available 24-7, and keep constantly revised sets of recommended links for teachers.

    Our students and teachers are being flooded with information(as are librarians).
    I agree that librarians are key to helping staff keep up. When I use delicious, I think it’s ironic that each user is now grappling with decisions librarians have made for years, of how to catalog something so it can be found again by giving it the proper tags.

    The wonderful thing is that tagging is now personal, and everything we do is so customizable to the individual. I hope the library catalog designers can keep up with this trend, so library catalogs can become much more customizable for the individual user.

    Podcast books, Google book search, online video–I could go on and on.

    And I know information literacy is the key for our students to all of this–because they are already starting to drown in information. It used to be we cut out newspaper articles and stored them in manila folders in our vertical file, because it was so hard to access old newspaper articles for students. Now they have so many, that we have the opposite problem, of teaching them how to decide what to choose. This will be our challenge — helping them personalize their use of information but in a wise and informed way.

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