As part of my efforts to keep current on trends in libraries and the developments that impact our services and the ways our patrons use them, I follow some blogs and newsfeeds. There is a raging debate about the future of the printed book in the digital age, and, consequently, the role libraries and librarians are--and should be--playing in this brave new world.
So what can a librarian do that a Kindle can't? It should be obvious that any transaction that requires thoughtful communication isn't going to be satisfied by an electronic device. Case in point: A distraught patron called us recently to say that she needed directions to a Connecticut city she had never visited. A close friend had been seriously injured in a private plane crash, and our patron needed to get to the hospital as quickly as possible. She had no idea how to get there and no computer to consult. So she called our Reference Desk and stopped in to pick up the directions a Reference Librarian printed out for her. Sadly, her friend died, but a quick response from a librarian made it possible for her to be with the family at a most difficult time.
You can read a book on an eReader, but it won't recommend other titles you might like. It won't help your child find appropriate material for an assignment on the Colisseum. It won't help you obtain a book from the Widener Library at Harvard. It won't help you find the phone number for Readers Digest subscription services. It won't help you attach your resume to an email. It won't distribute IRS forms. And it really won't care if walk out the door with exactly what you need. But a librarian will.
In the debate over print vs. digital, it's important to remember that television didn't eliminate radio, that airplanes didn't eliminate trains, that credit cards didn't eliminate paper money and coins. Colleges offer online courses, but brick and mortar campuses are still thriving. Digital books offer an alternative to print, but they won't replace libraries and librarians anytime soon.