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Anyone remember librarians?

18 January 2007

I love librarians. The stereotypical image of these people is that of a middle-aged woman with calf-length tweed skirt, hair tied back in a bun, thick-rimmed glasses, sharp features and a personality to match.

But that's way out of date.

These days, librarians are likely as not to be male, casually dressed and loaded with a pleasant manner and sparkling conversation.

However, they do seem to have gotten their noses way out of joint in response to a seemingly innocuous TV ad designed to push Telecom's products.

In fact they've been so vocal in their expressions of outrage that the encumbent telco has decided to pull those ads.

Yes, that's right -- although Telecom was prepared to stand their ground in a war with government over the critical issue of unbundling, they are obviously no match for the nation's army of librarians.

This suggests to me that the book is mightier than the trough!

But really, are our leather-bound and gold-leafed friends perhaps being just a little bit precious in taking offense at Telecom's ads?

Well *I* think so, but I wonder if this sensitivity is simply an awareness on their part that the role of the once essential librarian is now a shrinking one, thanks to new technology.

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As the kids in the Telecom ad suggest, the Net really is challenging the role of the traditional reference library and, thanks to the growing amount of creative works now online, it even challenges the fiction section.

Maybe Google doesn't have the wit, charm and friendly mannerisms of your local librarian but, when used properly, it's a damned quick and efficient way to track down that information you're looking for.

What's more, Google's plan to digitise an incredible array of printed works makes the library even less relevant to a generation brought up behind a keyboard rather than the printed page.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating the elimination of libraries or those whose job it is to pinpoint the information held in them (heaven forbid that *I* incur the wrath of the librarian-army) -- but I am stating the obvious.

For those like myself who were bought up on books, there's just something about the smell, feel, substance and comfort that only a well-bound printed volume can provide but I am also aware that the same information in electronic format offers some very real advantages.

A good example of this is the way that manuals for computer software have changed over the past 20 years.

In the days of CP/M and early MSDOS computers, every piece of commercial software came with a huge ringbinder (or two), filled with pages of printed instructions, reference material and possibly even a tutorial.

Once MS Windows became a defacto standard, this all changed.

Software publishers discovered that they could save a fist-full of money by using Windows Help Files rather than printed volumes.

Instead of shipping kilos of pressed, stained tree-pulp and vinyl, all the information you needed could simply be stored on disk right alongside the software itself.

Initially I despised this shift in format. Damn it, I much preferred to sit back with a coffee in hand and browse through a manual while sitting in the sun or relaxing in my favourite comfy chair. Disk-based reference material did not lend itself to that.

But gradually, as I discovered how much quicker and easier it was to use context-sensitive help and keyword searches, I found that this was really a much better and more efficient way to deliver and use written information.

Okay, so there's no way that a laptop, PDA or iPhone is ever going to replace that good old Mills and Boon paperback that your wife/girlfriend keeps hidden under her pillow -- but we really have to acknowledge that the Net is going to do to libraries and librarians what the wordprocessor has done to the typewriter.

Yes, you can still buy typewriters and for some tasks they're actually faster, easier and better than a word-processor. But for the *vast* majority of us, a typewriter is a relic of the past, not a tool of the future.

Hang on, I hear someone at the door.

No, no... A legion of angry librarians! Excuse me while I run for my life. Theresa, wait for me!

Have your say on this...

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