Libraries, books, and librarians

Photo: Stockholm public library, Marcus Hansson, CC-BY-2.0 via

I’ve always loved libraries. As a young boy, I combed the stacks of my town library, finding great books that took me far beyond the world I knew (40 years later, I’m sharing those same books with my son*). As a no-longer-young academic, I love libraries just as much; but my reasons have changed a bit, and so has my understanding of what a library is.

As a boy, I loved the library because I loved books, and I understood the library as a building full of books. Libraries still have a lot of books, but fewer than they used to, as information has moved online and more square footage is allocated to meeting rooms, study space, computer stations, and so on. It’s not hard to find someone declaring with anguish the death of the library; it’s also not hard to find someone declaring that same death with smug pleasure. For a while I was tempted to join the anguished camp; but instead I’ve come to see the library not as a building full of books, but as a building full of librarians. And if books are wonderful, well, librarians are pretty great too.

There’s a long list of things librarians can do for a child, for a student, or for an academic. A lot of these have to do with teaching people to find, interpret, and evaluate information – with that last being especially important in an age where online searches can bring you millions of results but little help in knowing which are credible**. It goes on, though – my university’s librarians help faculty and students with writing, data archiving, citation formatting, copyright practices, study habits, and the list goes on and on. But my most recent reason for being in awe of librarians has to do with their uncanny ability to find information.

Librarians, in fact, have search superpowers. This might seem unimportant. In a way it’s never been easier to find information than it is today – I’ve already mentioned that search engines pull up millions of pages on almost any topic. But while search engines are very good, they aren’t all-knowing; and the very flood of search results can hide information as well as reveal it. Let me tell you a story about a search, and how a human librarian put a Google search to shame.

In my (forthcoming) writing book, I wanted to include a quotation from the American poet William Stafford, who (according to some reasonably credible print sources) said

“There is no such thing as writer’s block for writers whose standards are low enough”.

I needed a citation to the original source, though – and I needed to know that he actually said it. A Google search quickly gave me hundreds of pages using that quote, but not one with an original citation. I worked at this for most of a day (I’d never gotten to the 100th page of a Google search before) and then did what I should have done a lot sooner: called in an expert. I went to the Science Library and asked one of the librarians, Judy, if she wanted a challenge. I gave her the supposed quotation, and she promised to see what she could do.

The very next day, Judy called me. With some help from her colleagues, she’d checked a biography of Stafford, and learned that while he was deceased, he had a son, Kim Stafford, who is also a poet and teaches at Lewis and Clark College. So Judy wrote to Kim, who suggested the version I had wasn’t right, but was consistent with other things he remembered his father saying. Kim in turn contacted the archivist of his father’s papers, and between them they pointed out a couple of places where William had published similar thoughts. In the end, I was able to use a real quotation:

“I think there are never mornings that anybody ‘can’t write.’ I think that anybody could write if he would have standards as low as mine***” (Stafford 1978, Writing the Australian crawl: Views on the writer’s vocation. University of Michigan Press, p. 104).

This was fantastic: not only did I have my citation, I had (subsequently) a lovely email exchange with Kim Stafford. Now, maybe you would have thought of tracking down William Stafford’s family, as Judy did. But it would never have occurred to me; and if it had, I might not have had the chutzpah to actually do it. And this isn’t my only example of librarians with search superpowers. Judy also found me the archives holding a particular 16th-century map (when all I had was a low-resolution jpg cropped too small to tell what it was a map of), and a quotation by J.G. Ballard that appeared only in an author Q-and-A in one particular printing of one particular edition of his novel Millennium People. Other librarians have found me things just as obscure; I haven’t managed to stump them yet.

I often send my undergraduates to the library, and many of them seem perplexed by this. They see the library as a quiet place to study, and if they notice the books and journals, they see them as quaintly archaic (because “everything” is online). If they see the librarians at all, they see someone to check out course-reserve material for them. What an underestimation! Maybe I shouldn’t have let the secret out, because if Judy and her colleagues ever face demands from every student like those they’ve faced from me, the system will grind to a halt. But what a resource my students are missing out on! A library is a building full of librarians, and that’s a wonderful thing.

© Stephen Heard ( March 21, 2016

Related posts:

*^My town library was small, but there were gems. Here are three I discovered there that are still in print, but no longer well known: George Selden’s Tucker’s Countryside; Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain; and Alan Garner’s Elidor. My son has loved the first two, but is not quite old enough yet for the third. If you need a gift for a child (aged ~6-9, 8-11, and 11-14 respectively), I recommend these highly.

**^A Google search for “vaccines autism” returned about 22 million hits this morning. Among the top two dozen were well-written pages explaining the science, scaremongering pseudoscientific conspiracy theories, and everything in between. Navigating this isn’t easy, and most of us have seen students (and others) struggle. (I posted about the understandable difficulties of non-scientists dealing with issues like this here).

***^What he meant was that if you feel blocked, it may be because you think you’re writing something terrible. But that’s irrelevant to the task at hand, which is to produce a draft version – any draft version, because even having complete garbage on the page in front of you is far better than having a blank piece of paper. Garbage you can work with.

5 thoughts on “Libraries, books, and librarians

  1. Judy MacLean

    Thank you so much Stephen! As you know, I’m always game for a little challenge. I hope I can live up to my new superpower reputation! 🙂


  2. craftycrabbe

    I grew up enjoying my public library as a child: particularly the dusty old children’s books stored in the stacks upstairs. Fast forward 40 years and I’m a volunteer tour guide at a library and every time I discover a new collection specialisation at our library I’m delighted: theatre programmes, files with brochures from artist’s exhibitions, the archives of a magician, audio recording, pictures, photos, posters and ephemera. So many sources (and only some digitised as yet), but the librarians are the human sources and interfaces, whose brains range across many collections and make connections. Thanks for an interesting read, it’s nice to read a twist on the theme of bemoaning the loss of books to instead celebrate librarians.


  3. Pingback: Being an open-access advocate doesn’t excuse you from proper literature searches | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  4. Pingback: Klaas’s cuckoo and the joys of old literature | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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