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The 21st Century Library: Books may gather dust in the stacks, but librarians are busier than ever

By Joseph Lichterman, Daily News Editor
Published October 16, 2011

When University Prof. Asa Gray, sailed for Europe in 1838, he was given $5,000 and was charged with the task of purchasing a collection of books to start the fledging University of Michigan’s library.

Gray purchased volumes on a wide array of topics, covering everything from classical literature to zoology, and he sent more than 3,000 books back to Ann Arbor.

Over the past century, the University Library grew to be one of the largest university library systems in the world, but until the Internet came to prominence over the past two decades, the general function of a library remained unchanged from Gray’s humble beginnings in the 1830s.

The Internet, however, has radically altered the way people interact with information and redefined the library’s place in academia and society. Thirty years ago, if a student needed to know the capital of Mozambique, she would have to go to the library and ask a reference librarian for assistance to find out that the capital is Maputo.

Now, all a student needs to do is run a Google search on her iPhone and within 30 seconds — and without leaving her bedroom — she could find out that Maputo has a population of 1.07 million and that the average temperature in July is 64 degrees Fahrenheit.

So while the instantaneous nature of the Internet has made The United States Postal Service insignificant (When was the last time you sent a letter?) and has fostered a 24-hour demand for news and information, it’d be easy to assume that libraries, at the University and elsewhere, would also be victims of the Internet’s accessibility and travel down the same path as Borders Inc., CDs and handwritten thank you notes.

But that’s not the case.

While it's possible to go through four years at the University without ever checking out a book, libraries are hardly irrelevant. They are evolving, and in some cases even thriving, in the face of technological change.

The University Library has taken steps to move more of its resources online, has partnered with Google to digitize its collection of books and continues to increase the number of online databases available to students and faculty.

Similarly, the School of Information is training the next generation of information professionals with the skills to manage and preserve information in the age of the Internet — whether they call themselves librarians or not, according to School of Information Dean Jeffrey MacKie-Mason.

“The word 'librarian' is attached to a building, but the building is neither here nor there. It’s the information services you provide with the content wherever it might be,” MacKie-Mason said. “And a lot of people who specialize in library and information services work in organizations that don’t look anything like libraries and aren’t libraries.”

The University’s Board of Regents chartered the School of Information in 1996, but the school has been educating librarians in one form or another since it was inaugurated as the Department of Library Science in 1926.

Thirty-four students were in the first class to earn degrees from the Department of Library Sciences in 1927, and the next year the department became the third institution in the country to be accredited by the American Library Association — an accreditation it hasn’t lost since.

And while the program, its name, the degrees it offers and the technology it teaches has changed over the years, the School of Information’s goal has remained the same, MacKie-Mason said.

“Our mission is to bring together people, information and technology in more valuable ways,” MacKie-Mason said. “We have a very strong commitment to social improvement and social engagement. That, in part, has been the mission of library professionals for more than 100 years.”

Today, the School of Information ranks number five in U.S. News and World Report’s list of the best graduate library and information studies programs. Three hundred and sixty students are currently enrolled in the Masters of Information Science program, the most of any program in the School of Information.

Every MIS student is required to complete a set of core courses, and each student chooses at least one specialization of personal interest. The specializations range from Library and Information Science, which trains students to work in traditional librarian roles, to Human Computer Interaction, where students learn to design and navigate computer databases.

Each specialization may be different, but all students graduate with an ALA-accredited degree — a necessity for working in most libraries, according to School of Information Prof. Karen Markey, the LIS faculty coordinator.

“(Though) the students receive an accredited library degree, they can specialize in any number of areas that aren’t strictly, and narrowly, defined within library information studies,” Markey said.

Because of the variety of specializations, many students ultimately find themselves working outside the traditional library framework, Markey said.

Ben Bunnell was one of those students.

Bunnell, who graduated from the University with an MIS degree in 2008, now works for Google as part of Google Books Search, which digitizes the collections of various libraries around the world — including the University Library.

He acts as a liaison between Google and the libraries, ensuring the books are scanned properly without damage and that the scanned files are then given to the libraries and uploaded on Google Books.

At the University, Bunnell studied electronic search and retrieval, making Google — the world’s largest search engine — an appealing place to work, he said. But now, in his role with Google Books, Bunnell said he often acts as a “voice” for the librarians when talking with his Google coworkers.

“Having a library degree, having worked at the graduate library at Michigan and knowing a lot of librarians, it’s been very easy for me to develop relationships with the libraries with whom we work,” Bunnell said. “I feel like I speak the language of librarians. I feel like I understand, generally, their concerns and what they value.”

Still, there are students interested in working in traditional libraries. About 26 percent of 2009 MIS graduates took jobs in some type of library after finishing their degree, according to data from the School of Information Career Services office.

Dean of Libraries Paul Courant said that while there still is a need for librarians, especially when students and researchers need help finding more nuanced and detailed information than what is readily available on Wikipedia or Google.

“Knowing how to find things in an environment where there’s a lot of information, but it’s confusing, is an extremely valuable skill,” Courant said. “Helping people to make judgments about the quality of the information, which is something that used to be easier when there was not as much stuff published, is also an extremely valuable skill. Someone’s got to do that, or else we’ll just have total chaos.”

MIS student Ryan Clement said the School of Information offers courses that teach students the technical skills they’ll need to be successful.

“Talking to friends who are in other programs around the country, they’ll be learning things about technology that pretty much everyone in the LIS program at Michigan already knows,” Clement said. “There’s that focus and that acknowledgement (of technology).”

Clement, who wants to work in an academic library once he graduates, said moving forward, libraries will need to continue to make information more accessible for researchers.

“Librarians ... (need) to be able to create things that make it easier, more useful and more fun for people to get to the content,” he said.

Similarly, MIS student Ilana Barnes, who currently works at the Kresge Business Administration Library, said the classes she has taken on database creation and other online tools allow her to better serve library patrons.

Barnes said a large part of her job is helping researchers determine what information they can find for free through Google, and what they’ll need library resources to find.

“I see my purpose as knowing how far certain resources go and knowing what people will need going into further research,” Barnes said.

As libraries, as institutions and physical spaces, continue to evolve, the job of the librarian will continue to remain the same at heart.

And though Asa Gray couldn’t have imagined what the University Library, or any library for that matter, has developed into, the job of a librarian hasn't changed — as they still remain guides to knowledge.