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Don't discard the librarians Add to ...

The world of librarians was thrown into a tizzy this week - it doesn't take much these days - when the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board announced it will shut its school libraries and dump all but four of its library technicians.

The school board has 1,000 fewer students and needs to cut $10-million, and sees "nostalgic" libraries and librarians as dispensable in a digital age. In the late 1990s, 80 per cent of Ontario's elementary schools had a teacher-librarian; today, only 56 per cent do, despite the statistical fact that active libraries and librarians improve student performance.

"We need to work on teaching 21st-century learning skills," Cathy Geml, a Windsor school board official, explained, demonstrating her grasp of one of the 21st century's most tread-worn clichés.

That was the tip of the iceberg. While Windsor defended its slash, top-level librarians attended a symposium at McMaster University in Hamilton on the future of academic libraries. Discussion whirled around the radical proposals of McMaster's university librarian, Jeff Trzeciak. Mr. Trzeciak is the mad dog of research librarians: His deeply digital vision is one in which shrunken libraries are staffed not by librarians, but by information technologists and (much cheaper) post-doctoral students. Those aren't just ideas, either. The University of Denver library recently put 80 per cent of its books in storage.

This is the new mantra in library land. The same day Windsor dropped its bomb, Seth Godin, a well-known blogger and business guru, published a blog that rocked the carrels of the land. "Wikipedia and the huge databanks of information have basically eliminated the library," Mr. Godin wrote, in the precipitous tone gurus prefer. "Kids … need a library not at all."

Even a Globe and Mail editorial called for the death of libraries as "book-centred and quiet places" and their resurrection as "noisy digital hubs" - all to save money, because no one uses libraries any more. "Libraries should not be content to live in the 20th century," the Globe declaimed, "as it were."

That might be an interesting point if it were accurate. A couple of hours at local libraries in Toronto proves otherwise. Physical libraries and actual flesh-and-blood librarians seem to be more necessary than ever.

The knowledge concierge

Here is the case for human librarians: You, the information consumer, don't want to go insane.

Human knowledge is now thought to double every five years. The need for a guide through that morass, for a knowledge concierge, as even Mr. Godin admits, is critical. Anything but old-fashioned, librarians addressed the problem before anyone else. Peter Clinton, a reference librarian and director of the University of Toronto's information technology services, started his job in 1986, when there were five people in his department and the laptop didn't exist. Today, with 45 staffers, his is "the only growth area in the library."

The system his computers oversee is massive. The Scholars Portal provides the technical infrastructure that saves, stores and provides access to all the information resources shared by Ontario's 21 university libraries. That means 20 million scholarly articles, and counting; half a million digitized books, and ditto; plus all the catalogues and surveys and geospatial data the human race feels it might need so far, all available to anyone who needs it.

"Google's great at finding stuff," Alan Darnell, one of the portal's senior managers, explained. "But most of the material you find is only accessible through your affiliations."Some scholarly journals cost $50,000 a year, but not for the users of U of T's massive Robarts Library.

We know a lot these days; we just don't know where we learned it. "The source of information you're using, the evaluation of that source, how you use it, how you respect it and cite it - that's all what we call informational literacy," pointed out Carole Moore, chief librarian at Robarts for the past 25 years.

"It has been more of a problem in the information age then ever, because there's so much information out there, and it's hard to know where it comes from. On the Internet it all looks the same. But in the library you have so many more cues." Librarians know those cues.

Increasingly they know how to manage data as well. The afternoon I spoke to Peter Clinton, he was late for our meeting. He had been helping an economist who wanted to search the treatment of key economic concepts over 40 years in everything from scholarly journals to the Wall Street Journal.

Marcel Fortin, the university's chief map librarian - he oversees the must-see map library on the fifth floor of Robarts - was also late: He was helping another professor map land-use data onto a set of topographic maps. He knows his field - knows, for instance, that the Canadian government stopped showing West Edmonton Mall on topographic maps some time in the late 1990s.

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