Commentary
By Cara Evanson 4-11-2017

It’s National Library Week, and a lot has changed since the week was first celebrated in 1958. Information is coming at us at ever-faster rates: According to The Atlantic, between 1994 and 2014 the number of websites on the internet grew by 33 million percent. And thanks to Internet Live Stats, you can watch, in real time, the escalating number of blogs posted, tweets sent, and photos uploaded to Instagram.

Our current world is awash in constantly expanding, shifting information. Librarians are on the front lines of this information explosion. They are positioned to not only help us navigate knowledge and data, but to make ethically informed choices about how to use it.

The core of a librarian’s job involves information — its organization, access, use, preservation, and production. Librarians’ roles have evolved in the digital age, but remaining steady in the face of these transitions is a core value of the American Library Association, who designated the 2017 National Library Week theme, “Libraries Transform.”

Professional librarians champion access, privacy, intellectual freedom, and social responsibility. These values provide an ethical grounding for librarians, in daily application and in creating a long-term vision for the profession. 

Librarians Are Community Knowledge Enablers

The sheer quantity of information available today means that the nature of research assistance work has shifted. While finding information is still a core piece of librarianship, the evaluation process is becoming increasingly important, and librarians are expert partners in this endeavor.

Librarians are involved in curating historic digital collections, and work to ensure the public’s access to these collections. The Digital Public Library of America, HathiTrust Digital Library, and Smithsonian Libraries Digital Collections are just a few examples.

Locally, librarians are also recognizing and responding to a variety of information-seeking needs in their communities. Many are now engaged in roles like assisting employment-seekers with finding job opportunities, and connecting refugees with community services. Their commitment to social responsibility goes beyond the information available on the shelves and out into their communities.

Librarians Are Pubic Information Preservationists

Future researchers will ask questions that we haven’t yet thought to ask. Unless we properly care for our current collections of information, our knowledge might not be around to help answer and spark the questions of future generations. The digital environment has helped solve some preservation problems but is creating others. Librarians are involved in the work of both digitizing print resources and in preserving digital materials.

Figuring out what to preserve and how to preserve it in the sprawling enormity of the web is a major challenge. To be truly useful, knowledge can’t just exist — it needs to to be searchable and accessible. Librarians are tackling this work in a variety of different ways.

A few months ago, the Library of Congress joined with other partners to create the End of Term Web Archive to create web captures of pages from the close of the last presidential administration. While another ambitious Library of Congress project to archive every tweet on Twitter has stalled for now, the project is evidence of the potential librarians see in our current information world and the inherent value in perpetuating access to that information.

Librarians Are Openness and Privacy Advocates

While abundant information resources are available for free to anyone with an internet connection, there are many other valuable information resources locked behind paywalls — from news sources to e-books or academic articles. Some people can afford to pay for these materials, and others cannot. Librarians recognize this as a social inequality, and are advocates for openness. Open educational resources provide an alternative to expensive textbooks, open data enhances research transparency, and open journals make research and progress accessible to all.

While privacy might seem like the antithesis of openness, both maximize the choice and power of the individual. Librarians fight for the right of individuals to access information without oversight. Challenges to that right come in the form of government-mandated internet filters and book bans, but also increasingly from big data companies.

In our digital age, we routinely make personal privacy trade-offs for convenience. It’s easy to be lulled into giving up all kinds of privacy rights, but librarians’ commitment to individual privacy keeps us vigilant of the costs.

The information we use and the ways in which we use it is in constant flux. As information changes, the roles of librarians transform to best serve the needs of individuals in our communities and around the world. Librarians are partnering with researchers to create new knowledge, anticipating the next stage of our digital preservation needs, working behind the scenes to provide digitized access to resource collections around the globe, and fighting to retain our freedom of inquiry. Have a question you want to explore with them? Just ask.

Cara Evanson is an Information Literacy Librarian at Davidson College. 

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