Quick: When a conversation about librarians springs up — not likely to happen, but work with me here — what kind of person pops into your mind?
Someone quiet, timid, with horned-rim glasses, and who’s favorite word is “shush.” Someone inordinately fond of cardigan sweaters. Above all, bookish.
Who would have thought that these quiet curators of our collective human consciousness are now commanding the front lines in what may be one of the great battles of our modern age — the battle to clearly discern what is actually, factually, true.
Most of us understand it’s our differences of opinion that drive us to different corners of the boxing ring. For example, who has the inside track when it comes to building a better society, Democrats or Republicans? That depends on your personal views — in other words, your opinions. But did one and a half million people attend the Trump inauguration on the National Mall? No. We can call that a fact.
But in a world where opinions shouted loudly enough become de facto facts by the folks who share the shouters’ point of view, it’s becoming almost impossible to even agree on the questions we’re arguing about, let alone the answers.
Enter the librarians, courageous women and men uniquely qualified to guide you through the thicket of opinion-driven theories masquerading as facts to something that can resemble undiluted, straightforward, take-it-to-the-bank factual accuracy.
As it turns out, those quiet librarians had to bust some serious chops before checking out your books.
Four year undergrad degree? Check. Grad school? Absolutely. Perhaps you wouldn’t think you need a master’s degree to stare down noisy teenagers hanging out behind the stacks, but an MA in library science is just part of the job. Because as it turns out, librarians do a lot more than memorize the Dewey decimal system.
Surprised? You’re probably thinking that a librarian’s job description must be getting shorter every year. In a digital world, aren’t librarians just dinosaurs-in-waiting? After all, since the answer to every question is only a Google search away, who needs help anymore finding the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature? (Kids, ask your parents about that one.)
But in the modern world the need for librarians is becoming more urgent, not less. Yes, these days we have instant access to endless content. But being buried in a word avalanche doesn’t mean you’re any closer to finding useful information. It’s a needle in a haystack thing — facts are the needles, and the haystacks are getting larger every day. Extracting the quiet truth of facts from a white noise world is getting harder, not easier.
Lately I’ve struck up some conversations (quiet ones, of course) with librarians. It turns out they’re still busy. You’ll often find one working with high school and college students who are grappling with the devastating discovery that a Google search is not the same thing as academic research. Librarians are the ones who help overwhelmed students evaluate the one million links generated by Google in 0.37 seconds to determine who’s dealing with hard facts, and who’s squishy around the edges.
Librarians are way ahead of us in understanding that the ability to calmly evaluate sources of information is becoming one of the key skills necessary to navigate modern life in an alternative fact world.
Where to begin? Start simple. The next time you’re struggling to come up with another reason to turn off the television or computer screen, tell your kids that you’re all going to the library. Once there, encourage your children to ask the librarian to help find a book about a subject they find interesting. Your kids will soak up the personal attention while discovering worlds they didn’t know existed.
And over time you might even learn some things yourself — like how to be a more independent thinker who no longer has to rely on whoever has the most Twitter followers as you make up your mind based on the facts, not focus groups and echo chambers.
Can you learn all that from a librarian? You bet. But please keep your voice down while you’re doing it.