You would not say, “Astronomers: The Original Telescope”

I HATE the slogan, “Librarian: The Original Search Engine.” It is on a coffee mug that was given to me as a gift by a family member, and it seems to appear in my Facebook news feed every month or so. I find it problematic as an attempt to promote the services of librarians or the value of the library profession, and I don’t know why more people don’t see this.

To say that “librarians are the original search engine” is to concede that search engines do what librarians do, which would be another way of saying that there is no reason to talk to a reference librarian if you can just Google it. While it is true that before the internet, many people relied on reference librarians as a source of factual information that is now readily available through a search engine, it is a sad thing to see librarians tacitly accept the idea that this kind of provision of simple factual information adequately describes what it is we do by sharing this slogan.. A better slogan would be designed to get at what librarians can do that search engines don’t know how to do, and would communicate something of the way a librarian’s general knowledge and understanding of people gives her the ability to translate a user’s question into a search of resources (including Google) that will actually help. Very often, library users come to the reference desk after having hit a wall searching Google because of something specific that they do not know or do not understand about their subject of inquiry or the nature of the resources that will help them. Given that kind of knowledge gap, Google alone can only take them part of the way, and what they need is the consultation of an educated and understanding human being. Google, Microsoft, and others are investing a lot into research that will allow their search engines to take steps in the direction of interpretation and guidance, but AI researchers almost always underestimate the breadth and creativity of human intelligence as they seek to imitate it. So if we say that librarians are like search engines at all, we are misunderstanding our own skills, role, and social contribution, and in the process failing to see what we need to do to expand our expertise or train future generations for the profession. If you want a slogan for a coffee mug, I would prefer to see one with an SAT-style analogy, like, “Librarians are to search engines as astronomers are to telescopes.” People who don’t know much about astronomy can get some use from a telescope, but we understand that with an astronomer’s knowledge it can become much more powerful as a tool for discovery. We would not say, “Astronomers: The original telescope,” and we wouldn’t think for a second that that a slogan like that would be flattering to astronomers or supportive of the astronomy profession.

The other problem with the slogan is that it only has in mind the librarian at the reference desk, who is the tip of the iceberg of the library profession. Users talk directly to reference librarians, and as a former reference librarian I would never want to understate the breadth and depth of the skills involved in helping people find information in that role (retrieval and access). However, a good slogan for the library profession should also encompass the other roles that librarians play in their institutions, as selectors, organizers, and preservers of information resources who have their communities in mind, and as the creators and maintainers of the systems and intellectual infrastructures that facilitate the connections between them.

In conclusion, please don’t buy a librarian a coffee mug or other item that says, “Librarians: The Original Search Engine.” What to do if one is given to you is a more complicated question.

10 comments on “You would not say, “Astronomers: The Original Telescope”

  1. Pingback: Cali the Librarian
  2. I look at the phrase and interpret it to mean that librarians have been around long before Google and have a depth of knowledge beyond compare.

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