24 September 2008

The Library World and their lack of opinions

There's a mystical place out there, a place drenched in magic, adventure and fantastic experiences, where your soul and senses meets the challenge of the human spirit. No, not the church nor the congressional house, but the library.

I love this place. I love this culture. But it needs your help, because it is dying. There's many reasons for why this is so, but in my mind the two main reasons are that a) the book as a medium ain't good enough as the world hits a certain complexity, and b) librarians still think that the library is mostly a place to find books on shelves.

As much as I could go on at length on both these things - and I probably will in the near future - right now I'd like to tell you a secret. It's not a big thing and I might be wrong, but I've observed this little professional quirk the librarians embrace quite vigorously;

Librarians have no opinions.

Well, obviously not true as many of them have lots and great opinions which they've shared with me on a number of occasions. But when you ask them for information they will not tell you what book on the subject is the best, because, you know, we're human, you have to find out that piece of opinion for yourself. Librarians are not supposed to say things like "you'd enjoy that book", only (if they're big risk-takers and on the edge of library society) "I enjoyed this book," a doctrine that has a long and proud history in the library world. I know this is very academic and proper, but nowhere have I seen it so strong as in the library world.

I'm an avid library user. I've always loved libraries, and especially when I'm looking for some specific piece of information it's the number one place to go. And as such heavy librarian use I've become pretty good at telling good from bad. Let's define good as "getting you what you wanted or something even better" and bad as "getting something in the ballpark of what you wanted, with a feeling that there surely must be more?" These definitions work just as well with literature as with history and with science or any other reason you go to the library.

I think you can guess by now what I'm getting at; the good library experience comes through librarians who dare to challenge the stronghold of "no opinion." When the librarian daringly points out that I might enjoy this book by some other author that what I was looking at, that's when the magic happens! Serendipity!

Good librarians know to break this "no opinion" guideline. Good librarians know how to create magic and adventure. And I think good librarians know that this is their biggest and most wonderful weapon in the battle for the library of the future.

My good friend (who I miss dearly) Bobby "Slobo" Graham from the National Library of Australia kept telling me of a saying of sorts that I can't recall the origins of;

"Serendipity is when you go to the library to take out a book, and end up taking out the librarian."

At the library I've smiled, I've cried, I've danced, struggled, had love, made philosophy, drank the kool-aid and smelt victory. You should also. And tell those risque librarians that you love them. I know I do.


  1. Dear Alexander

    I came across your photo of the National Library of Australia on Flickr and would like your permission to use it in an article I have written on my blog at http://www.stresstips.com/?p=159.

    I have taken the liberty of inserting the photo into the article so that you can see it in context. The photo also contains a link to your blog.

    If you would prefer that I not use it I will remove it from the site.

    It is an excellent photo

    Many thanks

    John Townsend

  2. the marx, xml, librarians story is really good, and I wouldn't have found it if you hadn't commented on the taxonomy list on jiscmail.

    I wonder whether you know any of the international development people in the Netherlands? We had a huge activity years ago on a markup language for international development projects, which involved a variety of people but the enthusiasm was some institutions in the Netherlands