Marian the Cybrarian

Brian Taylor

May 20, 2010

For all the concern expressed about the imminent demise of the college library, there may never have been a time when librarians seemed more vital, forward-thinking—even edgy—than they do now.

It's a dated reference, but today's information professionals often remind me more of Ian Malcolm, the "chaos theorist" played by Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park (1993), than of the eyeglass-chain-wearing librarians of yore, if they ever existed in significant numbers. (I have seen only one, Mrs. Evelyn, from my elementary school in the early 70s.)

It's not that many of today's librarians routinely dress in sunglasses and black leather (though some do). It's that, more than any other class of professionals in higher education, librarians possess a comprehensive understanding of the scholarly ecosystem. They know what's going on across the disciplines, among professors and administrators as well as students. No less important, they are often the most informed people when it comes to technological change—its limits as well as its advantages.

Marilyn Johnson's This Book Is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All (HarperCollins, 2010) provides an entertaining, picaresque narrative of her experiences with librarians who, these days, are "wrestling a raucous, multiheaded, madly multiplying beast of exploding information." Ostensibly a gathering of amusing anecdotes about library culture—including the famous performances of precision book-cart drill teams at the convention of the American Library Association—Johnson's book is a stirring defense of the library and librarians, whom she presents as activists defending democracy and the First Amendment, as well as visionaries opening the door to the digital future, while protecting our printed legacy.

As Johnson presents them, librarians may seem aggressively avant-garde, but they are rarely techno-utopians. They understand the chain of events between the butterfly and the hurricane, so to speak, because they have experience with the cultivation of knowledge and with the practical consequences of institutional overreaching. They see the potential of new tools, but they are also the guardians of tradition. From that permanent dialectical struggle, they appear to acquire a mixture of whimsy and wisdom—in addition to a notable taste for eccentric eyewear.

In my experience, librarians almost always pass the beer test: They are among the most likeable people you'll find at any college. They have the intellectual curiosity of academics without the aloofness and attitude often displayed by professors. If you are a stranger on a strange campus, the one person who will always save you is a librarian. They may still shush you in some places, but librarians will also go to the most extraordinary lengths to help you achieve your scholarly goals without asking for any of the credit.

Recently, one of our college's reference librarians drove a student of mine around town on a tour of historic sites to help her with a project that combines archival research with new media. And, earlier today, when I casually mentioned that I was writing this essay, one of our librarians provided me a link to hundreds of relevant resources within minutes. If I send them a student with a problem, not only is it solved, but the student returns with information about resources that I didn't even know existed.

Try depending on a fellow professor to respond to an urgent e-mail message within a week, and you'll begin to understand my appreciation for librarians as colleagues.

As highly professional guides who can lead us through an increasingly tangled bank of information, librarians provide a voice of caution in a period when drastic, irreversible change seems like an easy fix for a concatenation of expensive institutional ailments.

When a major university such as Harvard loses a substantial portion of its endowment, the $165-million budget and 1,200 employees of its 73 libraries begin to seem like low-hanging fruit. One unnamed scientist, quoted in the May-June Harvard Magazine, suggested that the collections of Widener Library—the accumulated holdings of more than three centuries—should be dumped in the Charles River, leading Jonathan Shaw to ask, "What future for libraries?" And, one might ask, "What future for the librarians?"

A balanced answer is provided by Robert Darnton, director of Harvard's University Library and a professor; he is the author or editor of more than 20 volumes on the history of books, particularly in the context of the French Enlightenment, and has been a notable supporter of Harvard's relationship with Google Books. The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (PublicAffairs, 2009) is a collection of essays from the last decade in which Darnton offers an "unashamed apology for the printed word" while assessing the "place of books in the digital environment." He also makes some judicious predictions, some of which are already coming to pass at Harvard and at small colleges like mine.

As someone with experience in print and electronic publishing, Darnton is seeking "common ground" between the Luddite jeremiad and come-to-Jesus techno-millennialism. Just as Corbusier redefined architecture as "machines for living in," Darton suggests that the codex is simply an interface and "the study of books need not be limited to a particular technology." While he sees Google Books as an opportunity to democratize access to information, he also expresses concerns about the potential for monopolistic control over resources originally provided by nonprofit institutions.

One way for such institutions to serve the "Republic of Letters" and to retain a distinct role in the universe of digital information, Darnton observes, is to place the scholarship of faculty members and students online, free for anyone to read. Such an approach can combat the escalating costs of serials that devour more than half of many library-acquisitions budgets, and can expand the potential reach of scholarship in an era in which monographs are becoming too costly to produce. Judging by the online presence of DASH: Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard, that approach has made some promising first steps: The resources offered are extensive, but only a fraction of what could be available.

While Darnton presents digital technology as giving us new opportunities for gaining access to information, he is no advocate of abandoning the printed word. He observes that the "number of books in print goes up every year, currently amounting to more than a million new titles." It's an alarming rate of increase, one that many libraries, such as Harvard's, can deal with only through the use of off-site depositories.

In terms of cost, depository storage of physical books is competitive with digital storage, and, equally important, there are more assurances that the book will be there in 250 years in a form that you can read. Unfortunately, much of our born-digital era will ultimately be lost to history because it was never recorded in the more stable medium of paper. Librarians can observe problems in physical libraries (such as fragments of yellowed paper around copiers), but media obsolescence and bit-rot can go on undetected until someone needs something digital that can no longer be recovered.

I can't even open my dissertation documents from 10 years ago; none of my computers includes a floppy drive.

Much is inevitably overlooked in the process of digitization. For example, Darnton wonders who is preserving our "computer manuals or telephone books" (not that I care now, but maybe my great-grandchildren will)? What seems like trash in one era is treasure in another because nearly every copy was thrown out.

Moreover, one digitized copy of a book does not make all the other copies redundant. Books often contain paratextual information, such as annotations, that can become unexpectedly valuable. I sometimes find the smell of an old book can open up the memories of when I first read it, and Darnton notes that 43 percent of French students "consider smell to be one of the most important qualities of printed books." A scratch-and-sniff sticker on your Kindle won't do the trick.

And, of course, for all its promise, Google will remain burdened by the complexities of copyright law for the foreseeable future, meaning that books that are more recent than 1923 are still protected. And what happens if Google goes bankrupt? No business is too big to fail, as we all know now.

For all those reasons, Darnton believes—and I hope he's right—that physical books will remain with us indefinitely. But, as any collector will tell you, "you can't keep everything," so librarians will face the challenge of "advancing on two fronts: the analog and the digital." They will have to do it all, increasingly through collaboration with other librarians: sharing resources, streamlining interlibrary loans, integrating their catalogs, and managing open-access collections of faculty and student publications.

One strategy that appeals to me, in particular, is giving renewed attention to special collections, even in relatively small libraries. "Google will have scanned nearly everything in standard collections," Darnton observes, "but it will not have penetrated deeply into rare-book rooms and archives, where the most important discoveries are to be made." For example, Hope College has one of the most important collections of unique materials on Dutch-American history, and more could be done to showcase those materials online. More effectively utilizing special collections can increasingly become the basis for new collaborations between professors, students, librarians, and technologists.

"Having hoarded their treasures for centuries," writes Darnton, "libraries will at last be able to share them with the rest of the world."

The holdings of our libraries—like the publications of our faculty members and students—can become a major part of the public face of our institution.

Through the many twists and turns of Darnton's book, one major point emerges: "Libraries were never warehouses of books. They have been and always will be centers of learning. Their central position in the world of learning makes them ideally suited to mediate between the printed and the digital modes of communication."

And as Marilyn Johnson describes them, libraries are becoming "the new village green." Far from being the declining years of these revered institutions, the present offers new opportunities for collaboration and democratization with the library—and librarians—at the center of that experience.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich.