University Assigns Freshmen “Personal Librarians”

Rumblings about the coming Google-Librarian wars swell above a hushed whisper.

library shelves


Many people have a love/hate relationship with Google, but few have it to such a degree as librarians. For every innovation that makes the task of finding information easier, librarians both have occasion to be thankful for the timesavers–but also fearful that new technology could render their services obsolete. Add to this a habit for Google to occasionally slight libraries (as in this Google Instant announcement video which excitedly boasts that the Internet’s contents had swelled to a million times the holdings of all U.S. libraries). “It’s a complicated relationship,” writes one librarian-blogger in a post called “The Horror of Google Scholar.”

In this context, what are we to make of a recent program at Drexel University, which is assigning to each of its 2,750 freshman a “personal librarian”? Is it a scrambling quest for relevance, in an age where the Association of College and Research Libraries is issuing reports with names like “The Value of Academic Libraries”? “Throughout the term the personal librarians remind students of the library’s personal support for undertaking research assignments or learning how to wisely leverage Google as a starting point, but not as the only place to identify sources of information,” reads a news item from the Drexel site. Though students are expert at Google, sometimes they just don’t know what they’re searching for, Drexel’s Dean of Libraries Danuta A. Nitecki told the Chronicle of Higher Education: “The point is not just about interacting with information out in the Internet—it’s about trying to identify what questions you’re trying to answer.”

Though Nitecki may be underestimating some of her students, Drexel’s personal librarian program certainly couldn’t hurt. Even since before the Internet, libraries could be imposing and forbidding places, particularly for matriculating freshmen. And the fact is that good institutional libraries have resources–and some will always have resources–unavailable to Google. Familiarizing students with these holdings, and with the complicated and dynamic ways search engines interact with institutional holdings and subscriptions, can only be a good idea.

If Google is causing librarians to hustle and innovate, what we’re seeing is not the last desperate flounderings of an obsolete profession. Rather, Google is simply exerting a healthy pressure ensuring that librarians do the sort of reaching out they should have been doing all along–true and thorough outreach–which makes programs like Drexel’s commendable.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.