When Good Enough—Isn’t

On the importance of librarians in the age of Google

A losing bid at a carnival strength test game

“Why do we need librarians when we have Google?”

“What is the role of a librarian now that we can google anything?”

How often have you heard that?

Let’s face it: We have all become enticed by the immediacy of the answers that search engines provide, and we’ve come to accept the good-enough answer—even when good enough isn’t.

When I ask a librarian for help, I am tapping not only into his or her expertise, but also into that of countless others behind the scenes.

From the staff who purposefully and thoughtfully develop the collection—guided by a collection development manual other librarians have carefully crafted and considered—to the team of catalogers and indexers who assign metadata to the items we acquire, to the technical staff who design the systems that make automated search possible, we’ve got a small army of librarians supporting my personal act of discovery…and yours.

Put another way, the public services librarian is just the tip of the spear, the point of contact, between me and the phalanx of librarians and library resources behind her.

And like the tip of a spear, the librarian is sharp, targeted, and precise—a stark contrast to the smothering deluge a web search commonly delivers. The reference interview alone, when done well, is a master stroke no search engine can replicate as it refines and clarifies the perfect item for my needs.

Blending my input with her own knowledge of how medical information is described and organized, the librarian lays out a carefully structured query, one that marries logic with skill and experience to yield an answer I can trust, whether that’s a specific answer to a question or the oftentimes equally valuable “no results found.”

So why don’t more people consult librarians?

Simplicity is one reason. In the smart-phone/search-engine age, we don’t often need help with factual, direct questions like “When did Marshall Nirenberg win the Nobel Prize?” (Answer: 1968) or “How many chromosomes do humans have?” (Answer: 23 pairs, for a total of 46).

Immediacy also drives the DIY researcher. Many would rather take what they can get right now than wait the couple of hours or couple of days a librarian might need to perform thoughtful and thorough research.

Then there’s the psychological or emotional toll of bringing someone into our research. We have to admit we don’t know something, and we have to find the words to communicate what we need. In that way, working with a librarian is not an energy-free exchange.

Of course, neither is sifting through pages and pages of imprecise results. But that, at least, we can do in our own time and at our own pace, convincing ourselves that we can find the kernels of wheat in the mountain of chaff.

But can we?

When the outcome really matters—when you’re seeking treatment options, developing a research protocol, analyzing genetic mutations—how confident are you in your ability to find the answers you need?

Let me offer a challenge: The next time you have a substantive question, ask a librarian and then report back here about how it went.

I’ll bet your results will be better than good enough.

Photo credit (Test of Strength, top): Steve Snodgrass [Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | cropped, added puck]

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

3 thoughts on “When Good Enough—Isn’t”

  1. This is an excellent post. It is very troubling how few people understand the difference between finding quick bits of information and doing in depth research. While I realize that many times that quick bit of information is all that is needed there is a time and place for that deeper research. With all the talk about Fake News it would seem obvious that we need to do a better job educating our students so that they can do a better job analyzing and evaluating all information they come into contact with and understand that information comes in a variety of formats.

    Like

  2. Thank you for writing this. We tell people this often – – – in fact, I think it’s the recurring theme of our professional lives. And, as the amount and types of information grow, people really do need us more and more.

    Your article inadvertently makes clear another issue facing libraries and librarians: not everyone who is working in a library is a librarian. Oftentimes, there are other professionals working together with us in that space to make sure that the library is able to deliver on the promise of getting the right information to the right people at the right time. We need to acknowledge them, too. I have often thought that the health sciences library may become the first true interprofessional hub in an institution as we work to meet the needs of all our constituents.

    Liked by 1 person

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