“Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” — Neil Gaiman
The night before I was scheduled to return to work after summer vacation I was lying in bed, staring at the ceiling trying to quiet my thoughts and reset my body into work mode. Unfortunately I was unsuccessful. My quest led me to the couch where I began to mindlessly flip through channels searching for something to bore me to sleep. I landed on a late night talk show where the infamous Snooki of The Jersey Shore fame happened to be the guest. As I went to change the channel I paused when I heard her reason for being asked onto the show; she was there to promote her book. This interview I had to hear.
Throughout the course of the interview she quoted lines from her book; however, what disturbed me the most was a phrase she mentioned that has been haunting me ever since that sleepless night. “Oh, it’s totally true,” she giggled while carelessly flipping her hair over a glittery shoulder. “The ocean is salty because of whale sperm.” The interviewer raised her eyebrows as Snooki continued on, doing her part to educate the American public. “I’m telling you it’s true, just ‘Google it’.” Despite Snooki’s glaringly inaccurate scientific claim, I was far more rattled by her assurance that this ridiculous statement had to be correct because she found it online, so therefore it must be true.
Sleep eluded me that evening as I realized how desperately we, as librarians, are needed in the 21st Century to help the public, our patrons, wade through a sea of misinformation. Each day we aide our patrons as they seek to rebuild their lives and their careers after an economic meltdown that never seems to end, yet in the midst of an economic crisis that has enveloped a culture overloaded with information, we are under attack, forced to prove our relevance in a digital age where the bottom line trumps common sense.
Just “Google It”
Anyone that has ever needed to look up movie times before a big date or needed to learn how to grill a steak five minutes before the start of a backyard barbecue knows that Google and other search engines are useful tools. A simple Google search has come to my rescue to solve basic queries and reference questions on many occasions. Are you confused about how to use that new air purifier you bought? Don’t worry, you can just “Google it” and a DIY message board will help you out. Did you leave the GPS out in the cold car for too long and now you will never make it to Aunt Sally’s surprise 80th birthday on time? No problem, Google Maps to the rescue. In the 21st Century, Internet searches are no longer new and fun novelties to explore, they are a part of our daily lives, intertwined with our “to do” lists, holiday shopping, vacation planning, and errand running. I even relied on Google to retrieve pop culture references and articles to help me write this essay!
As search engines enhance daily activities, it is clear that anyone who can formulate a question can execute an Internet search, just like anyone with a computer and Internet access can build a website. While those basic steps are easy to complete, there are situations where all members of society will require more than directions, fun trivia, bare facts, or the answers to basic reference questions. During crucial, key life situations our patrons will require more than just the results of a simple search. Examples of such moments and times are: when informative, high quality medical information is needed, not speculation; when assignments demand pieces of literary criticism that can only be found in peer-reviewed journals written by scholars; and when locating an unbiased, fair review means the difference between a business’s success or failure.
Yes, people in our society can easily find information, but how many times during their busy lives do they stop and evaluate the quality of information that they find online? How many times do they silently ignore the nagging question in the back of their minds that asks if the information they found online is really correct? That is when the public needs our help as information experts to help them navigate through the haze of misinformation and disinformation that is found when the Internet turns from helpful to harmful. Unfortunately, our profession and the libraries that we serve are in danger of becoming extinct, just as we are needed the most.
Paging Doctor Speculation… Doctor Speculation, Report to the Online Message Board Immediately
One of the earliest things that I learned in my first class in library school over ten years ago was the true definitions of three words: information, misinformation and disinformation. At the time the words seemed similar, but my wise professor spent a lot of time dissecting each one and discussing the difference between the terms. I learned in that class something that all librarians know, that misinformation is inaccurate information delivered with the absence of malice and that the person or service delivering the inaccurate facts is not intentionally trying to mislead or misinform. Of course as librarians we know that disinformation is the most sinister of the three terms, yet do our patrons know to be wary of false information that is published to purposely and deliberately misinform and mislead?
Today, misinformation can be found on the Internet in many places, including online encyclopedias, personal websites, web communities, and medical message boards. Which means that when the public turns to the Internet for information and guidance they may not always be receiving high quality or accurate information.
Members of our society may not realize that librarians are trained to analyze all types of information and use their expert, learned skills to evaluate the validity of information found from all sources, especially those published online. The reality is, as Internet usage becomes a necessary part of our daily life, the amount of information that the public encounters increases. The trend towards self educating without the guidance of a professional can at times be a good thing; however there are also times when attempting to weed through an abundance of information can be an overwhelming, frustrating, and possibly damaging experience.
Librarians, recognizing the danger of this type of often misdirected self education, have developed innovative methods to combat the misinformation that can be found by searching through online message boards. One such program is known as “Slam the Boards,” a grassroots movement that has librarians “invade” popular message boards and answer as many questions as possible with authoritative, accurate answers. The authoritative answer is accompanied by a caveat that lets the public know that their query was returned by a library professional, an information specialist that is able to provide answers steeped in fact rather than speculation. For more information on “Slam the Boards,” or to get a movement going in your library community, see the Library Journal article below.
Online Searches May Yield Misinformed Medical Results
“Not all Web-based information is accurate” (Stapleton, 2010). That was the statement provided by the Journal Watch publication, Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, after medical researchers in the U.K. conducted Google searches looking for advice on five common pediatric topics. The results caution that online medical information is “highly variable and often inaccurate” (Stapleton, 2010). If doctors do not provide or discuss the best sources to locate reputable online information with their patients, then patients should seek the assistance of information professionals.
In July of 2005, The Internet Journal of Orthopedic Surgery scanned the Internet using common search engines in an effort to assess the validity of information found online with regard to certain types of orthopedic surgery. The results of their study reflect the inadequacy of detailed medical information found on most websites (Garvan, Gupta, Tan, & Xu, 2005). Furthermore, this study confirmed that the abundance of information found online could be overwhelming to patients that are searching for information without the guidance of a medical or information professional who can act as a “referee” to help filter, sort, and evaluate the information (Garvan, Gupta, Tan, Xu, 2005).
In the wake of this disturbing trend, the Medical Library Association, alarmed by the amount of overwhelming, inaccurate and even dangerous information available to patients online, has created “A User’s Guide to Finding and Evaluating Health Information on the Web” (“Medical Library Association resources: A user’s guide to finding and evaluating health information on the Web,” 2012). This guide was created to steer the millions of Americans that search the Internet every day looking for health information towards high quality sources, thereby helping patients avoid the maze of misinformation and dangerous disinformation that can be found online. Theoretically a good concept, yet how many patrons know that these types of resources are available? Even with the availability of online, credible guides, the public can easily breeze over these entries in favor of the first result in the Google results list. Furthermore, even if patrons are able to find and access the information, how much of it are they able to comprehend? Librarians are obviously not allowed to dispense medical advice; however, they can use advanced reference tools and resources to define medical terminology for their patrons. This service is especially helpful for non-native English speakers, English Language Learners, and patrons new to this country.
In 2009, the Library of Congress formed a “Metadata for Digital Content” group with the goal of providing the public better access to digital materials by helping users locate relevant sources when they search. According to the resident metadata experts at the Library of Congress, “Perfect metadata is not required, good metadata is useful” (“Access through metadata: Library group tackles the challenge”, n.d.). Despite the valiant efforts of all librarians to direct and encourage their patrons to utilize high quality librarian reviewed sources, many patrons will still inevitably use a search engine for many of their medical queries. Knowing this, the librarians at The Library of Congress, in the aforementioned group, are exploring the concept of changing the way metadata is used in presenting search results. Their findings can then trickle down to benefit the entire library community. By attacking the problem of inaccurate search results from the back end, librarians can work to steer their patrons towards more reliable websites as metadata places a central role in ensuring that a website is highly visible within a search results list.
Moving forward on a quest for accurate and reliable information, the idea is that metadata can be used to promote credibility in conjunction with visibility. Simply put, how can we harness the power of metadata to help patrons locate data that is useful and reliable for their needs? This is one of the many ways librarians can work to help combat the problem of inaccurate information, both medical and non-medical, found online.
Discrepancies found in medical information that can be accessed online do not just affect the realm of traditional, Western medicine. Patrons that are looking to find information on alternative and holistic medicinal treatments should be aware as well when they conduct online searches for web-based health resources. The National Institutes of Health, via their National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, has provided an online resource to help the public evaluate health resources that they find online. This information is an invaluable resource for those searching for reputable and reliable treatments and practitioners as an alternative to Western medicine. Librarians, using the tool of an in-depth reference interview, can guide their patrons towards this and other useful resources.
Librarians have also worked to make things simpler for those patients who do not feel comfortable divulging personal health information to a librarian during an in-person reference interview. As technology is updated and changes are made, patrons have the option of texting, e-mailing or instant messaging in real time, sensitive questions to a reference librarian to maintain a degree of anonymity. Librarians also work to ensure that their library home pages contain up-to -date and accurate links to reputable websites. For people who are too ill or incapacitated to visit the library in person, these links allow librarians to direct patrons toward quality medical information.
Once we guide patrons to these reputable resources, or take the time to help them locate information via an in-depth reference interview, we will always warn patients to discuss any medical advice or treatments found online with their doctor. We as librarians may know this, so the question then becomes, how can we get our patrons to realize that these services exist?
The College Conundrum: Conducting Research in the Digital Age
Upon entering college many students hold the misconception that “everything can be found online,” which leads them to quickly learn a lesson in information literacy—it isn’t that easy. According to the 2009 Project Information Literacy Project Report, despite all of the digital information and information technology available to students, “research seems to be far more difficult to conduct in the digital age than it (was) in previous times” (Eisenberg & Head, 2009). Students soon learn that when they need to retrieve sophisticated information and execute complex online searches, librarians can provide valuable knowledge and services. The services of academic librarians are particularly useful in the 21st Century digital age.
Librarians can help students of all ages make sense of all the resources available to them, including instruction on choosing the best source to fit their research needs and requirements for outcomes. For example, there are times when executing a simple, free search will not provide students access to the high quality literary journals and historical documents that can be retrieved via online, subscription databases. Once students realize this, the usefulness of the library and librarians becomes clear. In response to the rigors and demands of college level research, students are appreciative of the services provided by librarians, and students “value libraries for giving them the information-gathering context that they need to carry out course-related research” (Eisenberg & Head, 2009).
As a practicing school librarian and public librarian who also “moonlights” and teaches a research class at a local college, I have witnessed firsthand the useful tips, tools, and assistance that academic librarians provide for eager and anxious students. Unfortunately, some students are unaware that these services are available to them and they stumble through their college years without adequate access to the vast array of services that academic libraries provide, including remote database access, writing center revisions, and citation assistance. During the fall semester, I teach an academic writing and research class to adult learners in their last semester of college. Working with the academic librarians on campus, I ensure that our first two classes meet in the library and that students receive an introduction to library sources and services from one of the librarians. For many of the students, this is their first time receiving any type of formal instruction on all that the library has to offer. Once they are made aware of the library resources accessible to them, both the quality of their work and the ease with which they are able to complete assignments drastically improves.
The remedy for the initial problem was the introduction of a mandatory “Library 101” class for all freshmen students to complete during their first semester, coupled with the addition of extensive “LibGuides” and specific, focused, bibliographies and pathfinders on the college library’s website. The Library 101 class was specifically designed to enhance the first year experience of college students by offering flexible course times and a versatile curriculum that does not interfere with their regularly scheduled classes. This six-week, one-credit class can be taken on-site or online, and culminates with the students producing research bibliographies and a final paper that correlates to one of their core subject areas. These academic librarians recognized a serious information literacy problem and worked quickly to ensure that their library would be utilized to its full potential. As library professionals this represents an example of our ability to constantly adapt to our patrons’ needs.
Brother Can You Spare Our Library?
A disturbing question has been circulating throughout our society since the dawn of the Internet: “Now that we have the Internet, why do we still need librarians?” This question was birthed quietly, in small circles, most likely the result of old stereotypes that continue to haunt our profession. The question has grown into a topic that provides fodder for many of the cocktail party conversations and holiday dinner debates that we all have experienced. Over the years, librarians have managed to make headway against this misinformed idea, yet the current economic climate only serves to feed the beast. Some frustrated policy makers and politicians no longer see the value of librarians when their vision and our efforts are marred by economic hardship and devastation. According to the 2010 ALA brief, A Perfect Storm Brewing, “budget cuts threaten library services at a time of increased demand.” These cuts often come in the form of a reduction in operating hours and, in extreme cases, library closings.
“In the grip of one of the most severe recessions since the Great Depression, Americans are turning to their libraries not only for free access to books, magazines, CD’s and DVD’s but also for a lifeline to technology training and online resources for employment, continuing education and government resources” (A perfect storm brewing: Budget cuts threaten public library services at time of increased demand, 2010). Despite these positive usage reports, budget cuts (the ironic ramification of the same recession that is driving more people into the library), are closing library doors and reducing staff available to assist patrons. According to the aforementioned ALA brief, “15 percent of public libraries report operating hours decreased over the fiscal year.”
These drastic cuts are certainly not limited to the realm of public librarianship. Despite the usefulness of vital services provided by special libraries, academic libraries, and school libraries, the perfect storm of an economic recession coupled with a backlash of misinformation has put many library services and positions in danger. In August of 2011, faced with the loss of $500 million to $1billion in state aid, the University of California, San Diego experienced drastic budget cuts that will shut four campus libraries and the fallout will most definitely continue as they continue to face cuts of up to $52 million over the next six years (Perez, 2011). The result of budget cuts like these at academic libraries has been the removal or cancellation of research journals, books, and database subscriptions, with the effects being felt from California to New Mexico and into the Northeast.
Medical libraries are feeling the budget pinch as well. In a 2009 statement on the global economic crisis and its impact on health sciences library collections, the Medical Library Association and the Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries commented on the lack of funding and resources available to medical libraries and librarians during the recent economic crisis. Similar to what is happening in the public, school, and academic library realms, budget pressures are “forcing some community hospitals to close their libraries, [and are] severely decreasing or eliminating access to vital information and resources” (Statement on the global economic crisis and its impact on health sciences library collections, 2009).
Additionally, in 2010 the National Library of Medicine (NLM) made the decision to end their support of Go Local websites that allowed patrons access to health services within their community. Several reasons were cited for the end of the unique program that used the expertise of medical librarians to index local medical information and sites useful and relevant for local patrons in various states and communities. The rapid growth of the Internet since the inception of Go Local in 2001, along with the fiscal constraints of tough financial times, led to the cessation of this service. NLM cites the use of online search engines, insurance websites, and other health sites as useful alternatives for the service.
While there are relevant medical sites available, it is an open question whether our patrons equipped with the necessary tools to determine which ones ones are most accurate and reliable; especially bearing in mind that judgment can be clouded when a person faces a new or severe medical diagnosis. Furthermore, where can members of the public turn that have difficulty understanding English and are just learning the language? Medical terminology is at times difficult for native English speakers to understand. Knowing this, librarians have always served as a resource for English Language Learners and members of the public new to the community and country. The economic strain on libraries and library services may mean that librarians are no longer able to provide vital services for the patrons that need them the most.
The situation in schools is bleak as well, as school librarians are facing the same unfortunate budget cuts that threaten other library professionals. School librarian positions across the country are being cut and those who retain their jobs often work in less than ideal conditions as the budget lines that fund many school library programs are being eliminated or drastically reduced (Receivers, 2011). Similar to the situations in public, academic, and special libraries, these positions are being eliminated just as the need for these types of specialized librarians is at an all time high. This is especially true in light of the implementation of a new set of National Common Core Standards that require the expertise of school librarians to help students develop information literacy and reading skills to support these new standards. The Immediate Past President of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), Dr. Nancy Everhart, echoed the need for school librarians in a statement she released in March of 2011. “Not only do strong school library programs create an environment where independent reading is valued, promoted and encouraged, but studies have repeatedly demonstrated that students in schools with strong school library programs learn more, get better grades and score higher on standardized tests. By eliminating school librarians, schools are losing a vital collaborator whose educational specialty is teaching lifelong, independent learning skills. Without these crucial skills, how will today’s students succeed in tomorrow’s global economy?” (Everhart, 2011).
How can we as a profession combat a culture of speculative misinformation that surrounds our profession? How can librarians from all sectors of the profession band together to fight back so we all may achieve our ultimate goal of continuing to help our patrons when they need us the most? The answers may be found by exploring one word, visibility.
A New Role For All Librarians: Relevancy Through Visibility
Librarians know that the Internet serves as a useful tool that enhances our profession, yet it is in no way a suitable replacement for our profession. How many other people outside of the “library world” know and understand that fact? One ramification of these tough economic times is that all librarians must work even harder to show the world the relevance and importance of their positions by making themselves even more visible in their districts, universities, organizations, and communities.
This means that in addition to navigating through our everyday roles of helping patrons to access, analyze, and retrieve high quality information, we all need to take on the added task of becoming our own public relations advocates. Unfortunately, it is not enough to assume that the public, lawmakers, and taxpayers know what we do and how hard we work. We need to work together, as a profession, to show others the value of librarians, and to finally put to rest the image of libraries as dusty vestiges from an antiquated era.
School librarians know that the key to success and the way to maintain a vital, thriving position within their school and district is to collaborate with teachers and faculty members. By keeping the doors to their library open, along with the lines of communication, the library literally becomes “the hub of the school.” Is your library the hub of your community? Are all of your services being utilized? If so, does the local press know of all the wonderful things that are happening in your library? Though it can be an arduous task to promote the many events that happen in both libraries where I work, the effort pays off when the public sees the benefits of their taxpayer dollars highlighted in the local paper, hears about it on the radio, or watches it on the news. For examples of articles that I have written, specifically to boost awareness about the innovative programs happening at my library, see the links to the Garden City News articles below.
By inviting the press, taking pictures, and compiling a fact sheet and press packet for each event, I am always ready to make my library visible within the community, ensuring that the services we provide will continue to exist for our students and patrons. To help guide other librarians in these activities, a colleague and I have published a book, along with an accompanying mutable CD of documents that includes sample forms for librarians to access when they need to communicate information about events to the press. Information on this book, Make A Big Impact @ Your School Board Meeting can be found by accessing the website of the ABC-CLO publishing company listed below. The book was originally conceived with a primary audience of school librarians, though the marketing and advocacy tools and tactics make it valuable to librarians in all sectors of the profession
In addition to working with journalists, partnering with local community organizations can further solidify the library’s place in the community and create mutually beneficial relationships. For example, are you looking for prizes to help fund the annual summer reading challenge? Work with your local Rotary Club, veteran’s association, or Knights of Columbus. Get creative with your community outreach and you will have fun, fascinating stories that emphasize the importance of the library’s role within the community. An example of this type of catchy program is the “Doctors Prescribe Libraries Campaign.” This successful venture was put into place in Washington State in July 2011, and enticed new patrons to the library by showing parents the importance of preparing students for school by utilizing the programs and services available at the local library. “The new program was created to engage children who might have never used the library. In addition to following the Reach Out and Read model during their appointments, participating healthcare providers give families a brochure about the library and a coupon that can be exchanged for a free book” (Scaff, 2011). For more information on instituting this innovative type of program in your area, visit the link to the article below from the in the Kitsap Sun.
Academic and special librarians can get also reap the benefits of a collaborative culture by reaching out to their fellow faculty, staff members, and office workers. These highly skilled specialized librarians are brimming with professional knowledge and are able to provide useful professional development sessions on innovative topics that can ultimately assist their colleagues with their daily tasks and instruction. Professional development sessions can be used to showcase and highlight the helpful components of databases and other instructional tools, along with providing access to cutting edge research tools that employees may not have the opportunity to investigate and experiment with on their own.
Remember, all of these professional, collaborative events can be “covered” by the librarian and written up in the form of articles for a school, corporate, or hospital newsletter, drawing attention to the need for medical libraries and librarians and the value of their services. According to a 2005 Library Journal article, it may even save librarians’ jobs. The article, “Rx for Medical Libraries,” encourages medical librarians to collaborate with physicians and go out of their way to interact and educate patients. “To get patients into the library, have hospital staff get the word out that there is a library and that patients are welcome to use it. Suggest to the doctors or nurses that they write up an InfoRx referral for a visit to the library to talk to the librarian and hand them a sample of what one might look like. Some patients think the library is only for the doctors. Visit patients in the waiting rooms or hospital rooms and ask what they need to know” (Banick, 2005).
Engagement Through Social Media
As librarians, we embrace new techniques and methods that provide a platform for gathering and disseminating information. Many librarians have utilized the power of the social media revolution as a new means of reaching their patrons and promoting their libraries and library programs. Take advantage of the features offered by sites such as Twitter, Facebook, wikis, and Ning to publicize library events and services and to interact with patrons and the local press.
Savvy librarians know that the one rule of effective marketing via social networking is that social media only works because of the social aspect of the medium. Posts and tweets should exist as interactive tools where the communication flows freely between librarians and their patrons. Find out what they enjoy about the library, and also solicit ideas for programs and events they would like to see happening at the library.
URL shortening services that provide trackable links, such as those provided by bit.ly, can be useful in tracking the statistics related to users that click on the links that you post. This service helps librarians generate information on their visitors and patrons, allowing them to tweak the programs and services that they provide to better suit their patron needs. For more information on utilizing social networking techniques to increase awareness about your library and its programs, see the blog post, “Social Media Best Practices for Libraries,” via the link below.
Beyond Just “Google It”
Access to accurate information for all should not just be a luxury for those with the means, resources, and time to investigate and evaluate sources. Libraries and librarians provide equitable access to high quality information and make this basic right a reality for all of our fellow citizens and patrons. As librarians we are constantly working to adapt our services to meet patron needs, and to offer programs that recognize and utilize new methods of digital information retrieval. Libraries are the lifelines of their communities, schools, and organizations. We need to do our part, as a profession, to keep them thriving.
Many thanks to Brett Bonfield for his invitation to write and for his guidance throughout the entire process. This piece would not be what it has become without Brett’s insightful suggestions that gently nudged me out of my comfort zone. Additional thanks are extended to Erin Dorney and Emily Ford from In The Library With The Lead Pipe for their eagle eye copy edits and thoughtful suggestions. I am so grateful to Deb Levitov, School Library Monthly managing editor extraordinaire, for taking the time out of her hectic schedule to provide candid comments and suggestions.
This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 United States License. Copyright remains with the author/s.