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.
What else is missing? Only your map librarian knows for sure.
The irony of the Windsor decision, he said, was that "people who have high marks, or who want high marks, they find us. Because we save people a lot of steps."
Librarians know what's available in a field, where to find it, whether to use it. You, on the other hand, have to write a paper about the self in Hamlet. Try Googling that without the help of a professional librarian: 12.3 million results.
Not only academic libraries are complex. The Toronto Public Library is the world's busiest urban public library system. Walking into Toronto's main reference branch is like stepping into the centre of a very large brain crossed with a large mall.
Nearly 19 million people visit its 99 branches every year, and borrow 32 million items (which means every item goes out about three times). Nearly 90 per cent of recent immigrants stop by the library. Many can't speak English.
None of that works without human librarians in the equation.
A cathedral of thought
The physical library is often dismissed as replaceable, on the theory that digitized material takes up less space than books, and can be accessed from anywhere. That would be possible, maybe, if the people accessing the material were also digital, and had no need for a human community of thinkers.
"People who don't have offices really value libraries as places to learn," Ms. Moore told me the other day. More than three-quarters of U of T's students live off-campus. All those students need a free Internet connection and a place to work when they aren't in class. If you open the library and make it useful, people use it.
Ms. Moore speculates Windsor's weren't open when students needed them.
"I think it's the idea of a library as a place to think that inspires people. And the fact that there's a community of other people there, also trying to think," Ms. Moore said. She was trying to explain the appeal of working in a library surrounded by others.
The life of the mind is a daunting, solitary, often lonely existence: A library gives a mind a home, companionship, and "one of the few places where you can escape advertising," Mr. Darnell added, as well as "a freedom and an anonymity in that setting that's really important and that doesn't exist in other spaces."
Jacqueline Appleby, a newly graduated librarian now working for the Scholars Portal, objected to relocating books to classrooms - as the Windsor school board plans - for the same reason. "It takes away from the experience of a vast collection in a place where you can decide what you want to read."
On my way home from the library I encountered a young woman about to graduate high school (social niceties of high-school life prevented her from letting me use her name), who loves to do her homework in the newly renovated Gerstein science library at the University of Toronto because she loves to be surrounded "by other people who love school work" - a lovely, lonely longing that found solace in a library. Why is that deemed a luxury by digital boosters who insist on a shrunken, depopulated data hub? Information is abstract, but the mind is ultimately physical, human.
"I think it's a very exciting time," Ms. Moore insisted, contradicting the stereotype of the librarian as a backward-looking shusher who is happiest dusting book jackets. (I have yet to meet an actual librarian who fits it.)
"The archival function of a library, of deciding what we're going to pass on to future generations, is now being determined. But you cannot, in my view, rely solely on private, commercial organizations like Google to do that for a very long time, because their shareholders won't allow it."
Yet another reason to preserve the libraries that exist: The physical plant is already paid for, and no one seriously thinks there's a shortage of space. There's only an under-allocation of money, and the digital technocracy's strange distrust of human beings sitting in a public room while communally enjoying the freedom of their own minds.
"People have always had the idea of bringing all human knowledge together," Ms. Moore added. It was the end of our chat; she was retiring in a month. "If they could figure out how to do it, and if they could afford it. That's what the ancient library at Alexandria was all about."
A motto is said to have been inscribed on its wall: the place of the cure of the soul. According to one theory, Julius Caesar burned it to the ground by accident, when he set the Egyptian fleet alight. He was trying to destroy what he thought was an enemy.