For most of the human race, pretty much all of the lifespan of the human race, information was currency. Information was like gold. It was rare, it was hard to find, it was expensive. You could get your information, but you had to know where to go, you had to know what you were looking at, you had to know how to find your information. It was hard. And librarians were the key players in the battle for information, because they could go and get and bring back this golden nugget for you, the thing that you needed.
Over the last decade, which is less than a blink of an eye in the history of the human race, it’s all changed. And we’ve gone from a world in which there is too little information, in which information is scarce, to a world in which there is too much information, and most of it is untrue or irrelevant. You know, the world of the Internet is the world of information that is not actually so. It’s a world of information that just isn’t actually true, or if it is true, it’s not what you needed, or it doesn’t actually apply like that, or whatever. And you suddenly move into a world in which librarians fulfill this completely different function.
We’ve gone from looking at a desert, in which a librarian had to walk into the desert for you and come back with a lump of gold, to a forest, to this huge jungle in which what you want is one apple. And at that point, the librarian can walk into the jungle and come back with the apple. So I think from that point of view, the time of librarians, and the time of libraries—they definitely haven’t gone anywhere.
Gaiman added: “And I stand by every word of it.”
Librarians don’t just want to “walk into a jungle and come back with the apple” for you!
We want you to walk in with us. If we know the way through the jungle, we’ll show you. If we don’t, we’ll find some maps or GIS data and together with you we’ll figure out the best path. Either case, when we come back out, we’ll leave you with a map so you can go back in yourself next time (though we’ll be glad to come along if you want). And we’ll make sure there’s a web page and a handout with all of this clearly set out so it’s all ready for the next person.
Along the way through the jungle, we’ll talk about the jungle, we’ll explain about maps and atlases and OpenStreetMap and GIS, how to leave a trail so you don’t get lost, what all the trees and plants are, how to identify them, and useful tips for next time.
We’ll talk about the jungle itself. We have a lot of questions on our mind about the jungle, and we want you to think about them too. How did it come to be here? Who owns it? Are there property lines? How much is the library paying every year to be able to go into the jungle? Are there rules about what we can take out? Who owns what we take out? If we find this apple, is it all right to give it to you? Can you give it to a friend? Can you plant it and grow your own tree? What if we stop paying for access to the jungle—does the owner come and take away your apple? What’s the real story on the transnational that’s been buying up all of the land in the jungle and driving out all the people that used to be here?
And we’ll ask, “Why are you looking for an apple in a jungle? Maybe you were thinking of a papaya?”
Libraries need to help people build, manage and share their own personal branches of the One Big Library. We’ll do this with a combination of various kinds of information literacy, from the simple (how to use basic tools) to the high level (such as how to build your own tools and how to think critically about social policy). We’ll do this in a supportive and appropriate way for each individual (children do research in very different ways than graduate students), but broadly, to be an informed citizen you need to be good at all of this, and it takes time to learn. Thinking about what’s in the news right now, for example, information literacy helps us make sense of the reports about XKeyscore and all of the other surveillance intelligence agencies are doing. (Other kinds of “literacies” are also important in life, of course, and all of this shocking internet tapping is a political and social problem that goes far beyond IL.)
Gaiman says, “And you suddenly move into a world in which librarians fulfill this completely different function.” But actually what he describes doesn’t show that: in both cases someone needs something and the librarian goes and gets it for them. Sure, we do that a lot. But more and more we’re working to make it not just easier for people to get to the thing they need themselves, but also to know all of the many aspects and issues involved in getting it, about the getting itself this time and next, and about all the useful and helpful tools to make it easier and so they can do it with others.
(An aside: whenever I think of Gaiman I remember a comment my mother’s cousin made about the excellent American Gods. We lend him a few stacks of books every summer, and when he gives them back he includes a note with remarks about each. He said simply: “This book was written by a madman.”)