Librarianship: As We May Evolve

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is from Debra Kolah, head of the User Experience (UX) Office at Fondren Library, Rice University in Houston, Texas. She also blogs at the Effervescent Librarian.

A 1947 film located in the online Wayback Archive, The Librarian, urges young people to become librarians, and features a traditional library, and lots of books, and no technology—not even the early technologies of the library world. It stresses you must have two things to be a librarian: a love of books, and a love of people. Ten years later, the classic 1957 film Desk Set, starring Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, pits a traditional librarian against a suit from IBM. It is his task, as an expert of “electronic brains,” to automate and replace the jobs of the reference librarians at a television studio.

I love these examples of librarianship, not just because they are quaint and outdated, but because, at the time, they spoke truth. A love of books got you far in 1947, and in 1957 there was a fierce battle raging between a group called the documentalists, and traditional humanist librarians. Librarianship is a golden thread that organizes, illuminates, and provides knowledge. Luckily, we are now more open and responsive to innovations in discliplines, and infuse our profession with methodologies and best practices from every disclipline. When we have suffered from information overload, the chemists have helped; even now, when we need to find out what our users are saying, and what they are doing, we rely upon anthropologists, like Nancy Foster. This is a wonderful thing about librarians — we are some of the best people at work arounds, and we look at other fields for answers. Jesse Shera, who once scolded us for being slow to adopt technology, would be proud.

A brief glimpse into the past serves us well. One tale that is interesting is the story of two chemists who entered library school, and then went on to become leaders in the world of organizing scientific information.

• Eugene Garfield received a BS in chemistry in 1949 from Columbia and an M.S. in Library Science in 1954. Garfield created Current Contents which provided journal contents in a simple, regular and comprehensive format. He also spearheaded the indexing of scientific articles by their bibliographies, which creates a system of citations so that the very ideas of science can be traced. In 1960, his firm name became the Institute for Scientific Information, and began publishing an ambitious index entitled, the Science Citation Index, which both the NIH and NSF had declined to publish. The SCI later became the Web of Science.

• The other chemist, Robert Maizell, received his Phd in Library Science from Columbia in 1957. His dissertation was entitled: Information Gathering Patterns and Creativity: A Study of Research Chemists in an Industrial Research Laboratory. He was interested in how chemists found information in their day to day life. Maizell’s solution to information overload was fairly simple: do instruction and teach abstracting. He wanted chemists to do abstracts, and make the literature more accessible. He first published Abstracting Scientific and Technical Literature in 1971. A glowing book review in the Journal of Chemical Education says, “Chapter 14 is an excellent introduction to the use of computers and their corresponding information systems both in future automated abstracting operations and as current support systems for highspeed printing, producing ‘keyword’ indexes and in maintaining and servicing interest profiles for users involved in Selective Dissemination of Information Services.”

Regardless of their methods, the infusion of chemists changed librarianship, and information science, forever.

E-Science, the evolution of scholarly communication in a digital world, depends not only upon the selfless engagement that chemist turned librarians like Robert Maizell offered, but a truly more transnational approach and embrace of semantic web capabilities. We are seeing a revolution in the digital humanities now, where historians are creating data driven databases to organize and make sense of their data, which they freely publish, and make available for others. This is certainly the case for Andrew Torget, who created election data that is now incorporated into Google maps and freely available to the end user. This means that millions around the world used Voting America layers in Google Earth. To do digital librarianship in the future requires looking to the past, and understanding the history of who created some of the great information and storage systems. We will slowly move past solutions created in the Cold War, embrace open technologies, and yes, we will still need to love books, and people. And we need a new recruitment film. Especially one that attracts scientists that are good at data, and want to become librarians.

About Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian and Department Chair, Library, at New York City College of Technology, City University of New York.

4 thoughts on “Librarianship: As We May Evolve

  1. This are a very good examples on how people in different fields of knowledge has contributed to development of librarianship as a discipline mingled with others sector of science and with strong connection with technological innovation.

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