Books, eBooks, and Libraries Roundup: Nobody cares about the library

By Tom Schienfeldt | February 24, 2012

Nobody cares about the library: How digital technology makes the library invisible (and visible) to scholars

There is a scene from the first season of the television spy drama, Chuck, that takes place in a library. In the scene, our hero and unlikely spy, Chuck, has returned to his alma mater, Stanford, to find a book his former roommate, Bryce, also a spy, has hidden in the stacks as a clue. All Chuck has to go on is a call number scribbled on a scrap of paper.

When they arrive in the stacks, they find the book is missing and assume the bad guys have beat them to it. Suddenly, however, Chuck remembers back to his undergraduate days of playing tag in the stacks with Bryce with plastic dart guns. Bryce had lost his weapon and Chuck had cornered him. Just then, Bryce reached beneath a shelf where he had hidden an extra gun, and finished Chuck off. Remembering this scene, Chuck reaches beneath the shelf where the book should have been shelved and finds that this time around Bryce has stashed a computer disk.

I like this clip because it illustrates how I think most people—scholars, students, geeks like Chuck—use the library. I don’t mean as the setting for covert intelligence operations or even undergraduate dart gun games. Rather, I think it shows that patrons take what the library offers and then use those offerings in ways librarians never intended. Chuck and his team (and the bad guys) enter the library thinking they are looking for a book with a given call number only to realize that Bryce has repurposed the Library of Congress Classification system to hide his disk. It reinforces the point when, at the end of the scene, the writers play a joke at the expense of a hapless librarian, who, while the action is unfolding, is trying to nail Chuck for some unpaid late fees. When the librarian catches up with Chuck, and Chuck’s partner Sarah shouts “Run!” she is not, as the librarian thinks, worried about late fees but about the bad guys with guns standing behind him. Chuck and his friends don’t care about the library. They use the library’s resources and tools in their own ways, to their own ends, and the concerns of the librarians are a distant second to the concerns that really motivate them.

In some ways, this disconnect between librarians (and their needs, ways of working, and ways of thinking) and patrons (and their needs and ways of working) is only exacerbated by digital technology. In the age of Google Books, JSTOR, Wikipedia, and ever expanding digital archives, librarians may rightly worry about becoming invisible to scholars, students, and other patrons—that “nobody cares about the library.” Indeed, many faculty and students may wonder just what goes on in that big building across the quad. Digital technology has reconfigured the relationship between librarians and researchers. In many cases, this relationship has grown more distant, causing considerable consternation about the future of libraries. Yet, while it is certainly true that digital technology has made libraries and librarians invisible to scholars in some ways, it is also true, that in some areas, digital technology has made librarians increasingly visible, increasingly important.

To try to understand the new invisibility/visibility of the library in the digital age let’s consider a few examples on both sides.

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