Thursday, January 19, 2006

Librarian Heroes - Des Moines Register Article

This popped up on the Massachusetts Library listserve I monitor, aimed mostly at public librarians. This reporter groks librarians; give him a big dog biscuit and a kiss! Hooray! While he is aiming at public librarians, his comments apply to law librarians, and all different types, I think, too. There is, as I have said, a particular ethos to librarianship. Read on, my friends! I took the precaution of verifying the story did, in fact run in the Des Moines Register on October 23, 2005:

Our librarians, our heroes

From nabbing sex offenders to finding tough answers,
they're on the job


Sex offenders apparently aren't very well read. If
they were, they'd know not to mess with a librarian.

When a man grabbed a 20-month-old child and dragged
her to the men's room of the downtown Des Moines Public
Library earlier this month, police say the library staff
conducted a "masterful tactical response,"led by 35-year
library veteran Dorothy Kelley, hereafter called the
"field general." She barked orders, burst into the men's room
and grabbed the child while other staff members kept the
convicted sex offender, James Effler, trapped in the john.

Soon after, a plant was delivered to the library's front desk.
The attached card read: "To: The Hero Librarians. From:
The Des Moines mothers who are greatful." A kind gesture,
to be sure. But people, people. Greatful?

I'm sure they are grateful, but you don't want to mess with a
librarian on spelling.

These are tough folks. Forget the shushing,
bifocals-and-support-hose librarian. They don't like that image.
Librarians are people who endure fickle budget decisions, the
Patriot Act, the ever-changing information age and still have
time for random arrests.

They may be the most unusual public servant left in our time.

Where else can you pick up a telephone, avoid an enormously
lengthyphone tree, talk to a live person with a beating heart,
ask a question and get an answer, all in less than five minutes?

I'm not taken to nostalgia, but this is the equivalent of a
home-baked meal.

So here's what I wonder: Aren't these heroic reference librarians
about to be outdated, outsourced, out-Googled?

We live in an information age full of experts. Call
up a couple of Web sites, write a blog and join a
long list of blowhards who just repeat the
information they found surfing. A person who
does the grunt work and finds the original,
respected source of information is practically a

The reference librarian digs into dusty old
magazines that aren't online, rolls microfilm of
newspapers, flips through out-of-print books
and ancient city directories and collects tidbits
and scraps of a society amazed that everything
isn't entirely easy. Here at the Central Library in
Des Moines, reference librarians answered
315,000 reference questions last year.

Every so often, public officials get the idea of
cutting budgets. Five librarians were cut two
years ago at Central. But with good sense, the
positions have been restored.

Statewide, the number of librarians has increased -
from 1,263 in 1990 to 1,560 in 2004 - and the
number of reference questions answered hit at
an all-time high of 2,001,538 in 2003. The American
Library Association reports that the number of
reference questions to public libraries nationally
has increased every year from 1990 to 2002.

"As there gets to be more and more information,
people need to be smart about it," said Mary Wegner,
the state librarian."People have to learn to evaluate what
they find on the Internet. The librarian does that."
Think you're an expert, Googlehead? The Pew Internet
and American Life Project did a survey earlier this year
and found only one in six users of search engines can
tell the difference between unbiased search results and
paid advertisements.

We can enjoy our fancy bookstores, a new $32.5 million
downtown Des Moines library opening in April and a
complex home computer that promises information at our

But the reference librarian cuts through all the
information overload like a skilled surgeon.

If there is a tidbit of information on this planet
that begs for the light of day, they are there, maybe
not wearing a Superman cape, but a cardigan,
quickly drawing their "snag file" into action. It's a pile
of index cards with common or hard-to-find answers
neatly alphabetized.

To give you an idea, one card says only this: "The
correct spelling of portobello mushrooms."

Mushroom spellings. The altitude of Des Moines. The
corporate address of Ford Motor. In the pursuit of
accurate information, they never give up, never surrender.

"The America I loved," wrote Kurt Vonnegut in his
new book, "A Man Without a Country," "still exists in the
front desks of public libraries."

Say you're sitting there in your pajamas wondering
about some names for former President Ronald Reagan's dogs.

Type "Reagan's dogs" into Google and five Web sites
are listed. The first is a leasing company. The second is CNN
(bingo!), which after two minutes trying to load is a dead end.
The next two were personal blogs and the last was a message o
n a bulletin board. Time elapsed: Fiveminutes.

In the library snag file here it is: Lucky and Rex.

Say you're at a cocktail party wondering how many words end
in "gry."
(Answer forthcoming).

These are all questions to be answered by the heroic Des Moines
Public Library staff. The 11 staff members with a master's in
library science have an average of nearly 19 years of experience.

Deborah Kolb has worked at the Central Library since
1972. She says that young people seem startled that everything
can't be found via Google. One student recently had to actually
visit the Central Library and be shown a relic - the Readers'
Guide to Periodical Literature - to look up old magazine
articles on Woodstock for a school report.

Others, she said, don't know that some Internet sites that
claim to be online encyclopedias are actually information
supplied by users.

Kolb won't let questions just drift away with flimsy sourcing.
Librarians tackle the answer as if they're subduing a sex offender.

"My lifelong dream is to be on 'Jeopardy'," she said.

Kolb loves the old building that has housed the
library since 1903. It's in her bones.

"You never know who is going to walk in those doors," she
said. "Everyone from kindergartners to people who sleep
under the bridge."

The librarian is really the headmaster of a great social
environment, maybe one of the few places other than
Wal-Mart where all socioeconomic classes mix. And it's a
rare place for poor people to get information. Librarians are
enormously proud of that. Maybe it's the humanity oozing
from all the great books that surround them.

Soon they will all move down a few blocks to the new
library on the west side of downtown. A modern library must
offer more access to computers - the number will jump from five
to 35 - and a coffeeshop.

The librarians will still be the library's heart.

People such as Pam Deitrick, a librarian who started working here
part-time in high school in 1969. When a parent dies, she helps the
grieving caller try to remember the name of the song he wants to play
at the funeral. When people get a diagnosis from their doctor, they call
her to ask what it is and how long they have. She'll pull out the
medical book, careful not to claim an expert status, and help them
through it.

Just then the phone rings. A caller wants to find a certain paint and
can't remember the name of the manufacturer. Don't ask me how, but
Deitrick found it in Pennsylvania. The library staff gleefully found the
answers to the words that end in gry: hungry, angry (OK, those were
easy), aggry (a type of ancient, variegated glass beads), meagry (having
a meager appearance), puggry (a light scarf wrapped around a head or
helmet for sun protection).

I thought this was a dying profession. I was wrong. Librarians are too
tough to die out. They have this special force. Information just finds

Nikki Hayter, 27, was in her third day of training at the Central
Library the day I visited. The older vets were showing her the ropes.
Her grandmother had been a librarian there long, long ago. Her dad
worked in the boiler room. She practically grew up in the place.

She was told to flip through a roll of microfilm just to see how it
works. She grabbed the first one off the stack. 1949. She zoomed through
the roll and randomly stopped on a photograph.

It just happened to be the engagement photo of her great aunt. In the
increasingly complex cosmos of information, something tells me
she has a great future as a reference librarian.

Copyright (c) 2005, The Des Moines Register.

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