PBS Column Asks, "Do We Need Librarians Now That We Have the Internet?"

A recent PBS column asked the question that librarians get all.the time: "Do We Need Librarians Now That We Have the Internet?"

The column author astutely compares librarians to doctors to observe that, in fact, we do still need librarians.

Observe librarians, and you’ll learn quite a bit about 21st century physicians. Digital technologies are hurling both professions into disintermediated worlds where they are no longer sole providers of vital services. Both must change their skills year by year and prove their value day by day. Both must choose whether the change is liberating or suffocating.

When the question is posed next to the same question for doctors, it starts to be apparent that librarians still have a place.

“Why do we need libraries now that we have the internet?”

“Why do we need doctors now that there are computers?”

Take, for example, Rich Schieken, who retired after a 40-year career as a pediatric cardiologist and medical school professor. He recently stated that he was sort of glad to be stepping down. When asked "why?," Rich’s answer went something like this: “I do love it, but my world has changed. When I began, parents brought their sick and dying children to me. I said, ‘This is what we’ll do,’ and they said, ‘Yes, doctor.’ Nowadays, they bring 300 pages of internet printouts. When I offer a prognosis and suggest treatment, they point to the papers and ask, ‘Why not do this or this or that?’” He added, “Don’t get me wrong. This new world is better than the old one. It’s just quite a bit to get used to.”

Like librarianship, technology is changing medicine in radical ways. Cardiologist Eric Topol writes extensively about how converging technologies are democratizing medicine. With inexpensive smartphone apps, patients can check their children’s ears for infections, differentiate between bronchitis and pneumonia, and perform myriad other services that were once the exclusive domain of physicians. A patient with atrial fibrillation can use a smartphone and a tiny AliveCor peripheral to take an electrocardiogram in 30 seconds. (I have one on my own iPhone.)

Ponder this for a moment: Topol argues that the smartphone will soon be the most important device in medical history and that, relieved of rote tasks, physicians will be free to use their minds and talents where they are truly indispensable.

Like medicine, libraries have changed dramatically with technological advances. Librarians have moved from granting access to material (although there is some of that) to helping people navigate the overabundance of information. For centuries, the librarian’s job was providing scarce information to dependent patrons. Now, the job is helping patrons navigate superabundant information of wildly varying quality and uncertain provenance. The new job, unlike the old, requires marketing — librarians must persuade patrons that a navigator is worth the time and trouble. For better or worse, the digital age forces experts to make the case that a Google search doesn’t replace the librarian, and WebMD doesn’t replace the doctor.

And very few people are likely to argue that technology should replace all physicians any time soon. Likewise, very few people should argue that technology will replace all librarians any time soon.


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