Librarians as Research Assistants

Lately, there’s been a lot of angst in the profession about the role of librarians in the future libraries. The basic anxiety is that as both information and information-location tools proliferate, end-users seem to require less & less “mediation” by librarians to access the desired materials. “Therefore”, goes the ominous drum beat, “libraries and librarians may become no longer needed”. For my sake (specifically the sake of my finding a library job in 2-years time), I hope the profession figures this one out fast.

In the meanwhile, i.e. for the duration of this post, I will note that the anxiety seems to be centered around the reference function that librarians perform. Aren’t there other types of librarians than reference? Furthermore, I wonder if one plausible way ensure the viability of the reference librarian is to deepen the reference that they provide. Effectively, I envision reference librarians becoming research assistants — they will not just point students to possible sources to satisfy their research needs but actively participate in the research with them. They will not only do catalog searches and suggest resources that may be what the students are looking for, but also go with them to stacks to explore whether these are, in fact, the right books, articles, or datasets. They will not just give workshops on “this is how Stata/SAS/Matlab or whatever software works” but also sit down with students at the beginning of their projects to program together. They will help with debugging; they will act as writing tutors; they will follow up on how the paper, presentation, or project ultimately turned out.

If all this sounds like it takes too much of any librarian’s time and calls for too much expertise in any particular librarian, then isn’t this the perfect call to hire more librarians? More librarians, each with specialized skills? More librarians, each working more hours providing what’s termed “advance” reference instead of telling people where the bathroom is? As somebody who’s worked many years as a research assistant, I can safely say that the work is not always fun, and may sometimes feel a bit overwhelming, but it is always needed.

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2 Responses to Librarians as Research Assistants

  1. Esa says:

    I have always been a regular patron of libraries, but only in the area of borrowing books. And it seems to me that librarians themselves have been an endangered species for many years, and the talk of closing libraries is constant. Now I would imagine with the internet becoming ubiquitious, and information being as far as the end of your finger. But one of the shortcomings of the information we can access, is its validity. Can we be sure that what we ‘ research ‘ is actually factually accurate. I do believe that we all need to lose the image of the middle-aged woman with hornrimmed glasses, stamping the date on to the sticker at the back of the book, and replace it with one who is seated at a desk, with monitors, and shelves of books at her disposal. I don’t think anything will replace a person who is a trained specialist.

    PS. Hornrimmed glasses can be quite fetching.

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