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Giving Away Our Lunch

I’m not the first to post about this, and I hope I won’t be the last. But it’s been bubbling through my consciousness lately, and it has to come out. (Also, blame Andy, with his “librarians don’t blog about big issues” talk.)

Maybe this is obvious to everyone, or I’ve failed to take something into account and am somehow deeply wrong, but in case not: I feel like IT is eating librarians’ lunch—and we’re happily handing it over.

A friend recently sent me this fascinating job opening. Here’s how it starts, in case you don’t want to click through, or they take it down:

Vulcan’s long-term vision for Project Halo is to create the Digital Aristotle, a “knowledgeable machine” containing large amounts of knowledge in a computable form, capable of answering questions, explaining its answers, and discussing those explanations. We are expanding the program to include major components in natural language processing, semi-automatic knowledge base construction, large-scale machine reasoning, and question answering, and are seeking Senior Research Scientists to contribute to this vision.

So… kind of a digital reference librarian.

Now, this is a ridiculously ambitious project, sure. And they aren’t even aiming at most of our patrons — it’s for scientists, for now. But when we’ve already got a couple-year-old machine helping medical professionals make diagnoses and treat cancer (albeit with lots of training — scroll down to “Retraining” for info), this newer technology begins to feel like it might become relevant to us at some point. Tech moves fast.

I’m not being overly doomtastic about this, because it’s a ways off, even if it ever does come to anything. After all, natural language processing has its limits (we think), and machines aren’t as cuddly and solicitous as we are. Et cetera. And even if it happens, the important thing is people getting their questions answered with reliable information, not that it’s librarians doing the answering. (Sorry.)

I kind of wonder why we aren’t contributing to this project, or one like it, though. (At least, I can’t find any evidence of librarians’ involvement.)

Project Halo aside, other examples keep bombarding me. Google—an IT enterprise, not a librarian one—seeks to index all of human knowledge. (Sure, for a price, and that’s a bummer, so why aren’t we getting on that, ourselves?) A programmer friend of mine wants to build kind of an improved Internet Archive, without all of the limitations of the existing one. (There’s more to the idea that maybe he’d prefer I didn’t share, and to his credit, he’s talking to at least one librarian, in planning it. It’s ambitious as hell, but a pretty cool idea.) A database administrator friend of mine laughed—actually laughed, which pissed me off—at the idea that librarians could help him choose meaningful data fields and structures, and his attitude is not uncommon. All kinds of data management solutions are being written by programmers, and I doubt many of them have library training.

The majority of IT folks are pretty sure they know enough to do this stuff right, in part out of an “it can’t be that hard” attitude and in part because they take classes that sound like they cover the information field. They aren’t going to come asking for librarian help. (And, no, I don’t like speaking in an “us versus them” way about librarians and IT; I’m both, and I truly believe the fields should be more closely interlocked. But the distinction is, unfortunately, important to this discussion.)

I’m not freaked out by this so much as saddened. I went into librarianship because of the interesting information-related problems we all face: How do we (all modern people) navigate the huge amounts of information now available? How do we diversify our information intake—fight the echo chamber effect? How do we store and provide access to the crazy amounts of information being generated, in a way that will work long-term? How do we guarantee privacy in the digital realm? How do we get copyright law to make sense in a digital context?

And librarians are working on some of those things, but it feels as though IT is working on it harder and faster and that, if solutions come, most of them will happen without librarians’ input or insight. We’re handing off the very problems we should be best prepared to solve, and that is frustrating.

Published inprogrammingtechnology


  1. I’m glad you wrote this. You’re talking about work style, but I sometimes think about this in terms of methods. IT methods have been setting the standard of what people *like* for their information–forget the vaunted single searchbox, I’m talking about PageRank versus a library catalog. As a librarian, it’s easy to feel like a bystander. (Two things that I have often thought about doing but never get around to are [a] writing a blog post on how I studied computer science because that was where to learn a lot of things I wanted to learn in library school but didn’t and [b] additional blog posts about some of the things I learned and why librarians should care! The only thing I’ve done approaching this was a tech trends talk for MLA about content farms, and I’m not sure anyone got it.)

    I can think of a lot of reasons why the dynamic you describe exists, but it’s hard to know how to undo it without hobbling the good parts of librarianship. We *do* care about standards, interoperability, and scholarship, and we should. Maybe we should care less about consensus for the sake of consensus, and that would let us work a bit faster? There’s also a scale problem where most of us are paid to work on local problems but users are looking for global answers/solutions.

    • Thanks for your comment, Emily!

      I would totally read your CS blog post–and its follow-ups. Librarians SHOULD care about IT methods and about implementing some of our ideals, instead of letting others (with other ideals) do all of it. Please, go forth and write! :)

      And I know what you mean in your second paragraph. It’s messy.

      I will say, IT folks (the good ones, anyway) also care about standards and interoperability; it’s just that their corporate employers might not.

      The global/local problem is a big one and a major reason I think “librarians” won’t be able to make much progress with these issues. We need to get more people with tech skills trained in the ideals of our profession and then maybe find them jobs as “information scientists,” where they can work on this stuff.

      And, really, information technology and information science should probably be the same field, or at least generally acknowledged as closely related sister fields. We should see job openings for “IT/IS professionals,” but we don’t.

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