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The Futility of Search; or, Why Librarians Will Always Be Important

A colleague of mine recently asked what search strategies or terms I use when I’m looking for image collections online. My answer? I don’t search. I monitor sites that point toward collections, I ask colleagues, I keep my eyes open when I’m wandering, more or less lost, through the interwebs. Everything I trip over, I bookmark. Strange as it may sound, I don’t think I’ve ever actually searched for a collection. Even stranger, I never realized that I never search for these things until my colleague asked me about it.

Coming to this realization for the first time, I wondered if I’m not really a librarian. Aren’t librarians about search? Isn’t that what we do for our patrons? Isn’t that our unique contribution to the world? And then a wise man wrote unto me, “Search is for losers. Personal networks and contacts are where it’s at.” (Yes, email quoted with permission.)

While I’m not saying that search is dead (Nitzsche and Barthes are much better at such absolutes than I am), and while I know that’s not what Steve was saying either, I’m starting to re-imagine my purpose as a librarian. I’ve just realized that I’m working to become one of those people in the social network that other people go to when they don’t want to search for image collections and other such resources.

And I think this speaks to that perennial question: what role will librarians play in this evolving information world? Expert searcher? Yes. Expert selector? Of course. Key player in social networks? Absolutely. As more and more goes online and as search results get more and more unwieldy, those of us who make it their life’s work to collect, save, and make available the resources we discover will serve a crucial role in the research lives of our patrons.

Published inLibraries and Librarians


  1. Mark Mark

    “Well said,” Iris (and “wise man”) says the boy as he again tries to decide if he should take an online searching class that is almost entirely Dialog-based.

    If I ever get my critique of the Coyle and Hillmann article rewritten, that is one of my main complaints with the argument that Google has taken our patrons and replaced the library as the #1 info provider. It never was! Other people were always the #1 info source for people.

    Maybe if librarians (not libraries) can place themselves more into various social networks then we as a profession will be more useful (in a natural way) and perhaps libraries themselves will benefit from it.

  2. Iris Iris

    Personally, I wouldn’t shun the online searching class. “Search is dead, long live search” is kind of the name of the game, I think. And a few advanced skills are always useful.

  3. Steve Lawson Steve Lawson

    What’s the deal with a Dialog-based search class? Is the idea that Dialog searching is easily generalizable? Or that if you can handle Dialog, you can handle anything?

    I recall that the search class when I was in library school 8 years ago or so was Dialog-based, and I thought it was because the person who taught it couldn’t be bothered to learn the search engines that people were actually using in the late 20th century (I didn’t take the class). But perhaps there is a valid pedagogical reason?

  4. Iris Iris

    I never had a Dialog searching class, and have always sort of felt like I missed out on a necessary hazing. But maybe I didn’t. I do know that most of the payment structures libraries use when licensing databases have made “perfect” searching less necessary now (since you don’t pay by the result, usually). So I always teach gleaning terms from broad keyword searches and then moving toward more advanced/complex searches. So maybe a Dialog class would have been more harm than good. I just don’t know. Still, I can’t help feeling like I’m not a “real” librarian since I never learned that stuff.

  5. Esha Esha

    Hi Iris.

    I’m bored. So I checking out your blog…as always very entertaining…

    About Dialog…I remember when I was a RA(ohmygosh.. more than 2 years ago…I feel old), I had to search on it for a project and it was highly painful in its telnet like interface…very icky

    But I guess, it would be helpful if ppl used Dialog, which I’ve seen ppl do…

    Not very insightful, I know. Just thought I’d pop by and say hi…

  6. Iris Iris

    Hi Esha! I didn’t realized you read this stuff. (I went to library school with Esha, in case the rest of you are interested.)

    I’m against anything “highly painful,” so I guess I’m now anti-Dialog. ;) So, Mark, ditch the class. We’ve agreed.

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