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iconWhat do you know about careers-in-the-know? We have a quick quiz on libraries in the United States. So think "library" and ... check it out.
graphic We can tell you're on the Internet. So do you find you still use reference librarians, as well?

Yes, Dewey and his decimal system live: I use reference librarians.
Shelve me under noncommittal: I haven't used a reference librarian lately but I really just might.
Nope, I've burned my library card and I'm all-Internet. If I can't find it on the ether, I don't need it.
View Results

Not an endangered career

Looking it up

November 28, 2000
Web posted at: 6:08 p.m. EST (2308 GMT)

In this story:

Booking some help


Doing fine, thank you


(CNN) -- "We see now that the Internet is such a huge amoeba."

Walter Gegner is supervisor of the art, music and video department at the Minneapolis Public Library.

"It's going off in every direction and there's no one profession, no one group of individuals that knows everything going on with the Internet."

Lucky thing for librarians.

With seemingly infinite research data at the fingertips of everybody linked to the Internet, you might think reference librarians are doomed to go the route of door-to-door salesmen and elevator operators.

Instead, many Internet users have found the information glut daunting and confusing. And frequently, it's a reference librarian they turn to make sense of it.


Booking some help

The number of reference specialists working in public libraries has increased by 56 percent in the past five years, according to Market Data Retrieval, a subsidiary of Dun & Bradstreet that provides information on the education market, including public libraries.

Market Data's research shows that there were 2,634 reference librarians employed by public libraries in 1995. Today, the number is 4,100.

graphic It may not be the largest field of endeavor, but information from Market Data Retrieval indicates that the national work force of reference librarians has grown steadily in the past five years.

"Sometimes I think it's one of the best-kept career secrets," says Jane Fisher, coordinator of information services at the New York Public Library. She and Gegner say the numbers of reference librarians has remained steady at their respective libraries in recent years.

To be sure, the job of a reference librarian has changed because of the Internet. Requests for a specific bit of information -- the address of a government agency, where to get tax forms -- are declining, Gegner says. Such information is relatively easy to find online. But other questions have become more complex, requiring more in-depth and time-consuming research.

"When people call us now with reference questions, it's increasingly prefaced with a statement like, 'I've been trying to find this on the Internet for the last three hours,'" Gegner says. "They're not very savvy yet about the best way to access information. Increasingly, the reference librarian's role is becoming one of being an instructor or adviser on how to find something on the Internet.

"We give them advice on different search engines to use, or we've already bookmarked certain sites that we know are useful for certain types of information. We give this out the same way we used to say, 'This in the Encyclopedia Britannica, volume 34, page 212.' We're instead giving out URLs, or the search engine we think is going to be particularly valuable."



A survey conducted for the Urban Libraries Council this year confirmed what reference librarians already have learned: The Internet isn't driving people away from libraries. Internet users who said they don't use a library indicated it's a lifestyle choice, not because of the Internet, the survey found.

Of the 3,097 adults surveyed, 75.2 percent of Internet users said they also used the library, and 60.3 percent of library users also used the Internet.

Ever walk into a library and feel a little intimidated by so much info piled up on all sides? Hear are some cool facts about U.S. libraries to carry along: Amaze your local librarian.

One incentive for Internet users to tap into their local library: cost. Large library systems, those in New York and Minneapolis and at many universities among them, subscribe to online journals and data bases that charge fees. "For the average home user, accessing those types of data bases can be problematical," Gegner says.

The Minneapolis Public Library's music department alone has spent about $10,000 in the past 18 months on information about patents and trademarks -- data that requires payment of a subscription fee, Gegner says. Minneapolis library patrons can access the data free of charge.

Another changing facet of the reference librarian's job: e-mail requests for information. It's common for a Minneapolis reference librarian to get such a request, find the relevant information and send it to the library user as an e-mail attachment, Gegner says.

The New York Public Library has created a new online librarian position and began accepting e-mail requests for information last week, Fisher says. This will enable some library users to post questions after the library is closed, she says, "and it gives the librarian the chance to do a little more legwork for the patron."

This service is currently available only to people who have a New York City Library card. The library's Web site also lists commonly asked questions it has received over the years, and their answers. That information can be accessed by anyone.


Doing fine, thank you

While it's true that many reference librarians once feared the Internet spelled the ends of their jobs, those concerns have been allayed, says Gegner, a 30-year library veteran.

"Despite all the predictions, books are still going to be around, the print medium is still going to be around. But it's going to be augmented now by the Internet and digital services," he says.

graphic What about the libraries at universities? Librarians are still very much in place there, too.

"Now there's a great deal of optimism, I think, that librarians are going to have a continuing role. It's just going to shift its emphasis. We always we feel like we're behind where we should be. It's a constant race to keep up with the developments in technology."

And Fisher of the 85-branch New York Public Library system says that because of competition from dot-com companies for computer-savvy talent, demand in some places is high for reference librarians. "We have more vacancies now than we had five years ago," she says.



Congress weighing Internet filtering for schools, libraries
October 15, 2000
Study: U.S. reads e-books, but won't pay
August 30, 2000
Library of Congress celebrates bicentennial
April 26, 2000
New York seeks virtual library
November 10, 1999

Urban Libraries Council
American Library Association
Market Data Retrieval
New York Public Library
Minneapolis Public Library

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