Perhaps one of the hottest programs during PLA 2014 was Friday’s Young Adult Author Lunch with John Green. This ticketed event sat approximately 1,000 librarians, and demand was even higher. I was excited at the prospect of dining with arguably today’s most popular young adult writer, but I found myself even more impressed at Green’s skills as a speaker.
Much of his talk focused on the importance of public libraries and the key reason why they will remain relevant for years to come: librarians serve as curators of information. Green relayed several personal anecdotes in which he and his Nerdfighters – the term for his legions of dedicated teenage fans – were searching for a specific piece of information that required context. Google, or any search engine, easily could have provided the bare facts, but without the surrounding story, the information was useless. For instance, when Green questioned the burial place of a woman who passed away over a century ago, it turned out he and the Nerdfighters had been searching under the wrong name. Had he not taken a trip to the public library and discovered that she had been remarried at some point and changed her last name, he would have hit a dead end. Google may have served up a list of graves under the individual’s presumed name, but its algorithms could not have possibly known that none of those records matched the correct person.
In an age where new arguments against public libraries are sprouting up constantly, this argument is a vital one for librarians and information professionals to bear in mind. Sometimes, the simple facts – statistics, dates, locations – are enough for information seekers, but, often, the bigger picture is needed in order to understand a trend or a complete story. Librarians can get a fuller sense of what a patron is looking for by conducting a traditional reference interview, something at which an algorithm fails. They can also sift through the noise and find the information that actually matters and proves to be reliable. Where search engines excel at quick, straightforward inquiries, librarians are able to fill in the blanks.
Public library advocates everywhere would do well to borrow Green’s argument and point out the necessity of curation in today’s information age. Without it, information seekers would be stuck with the risk of – at best – incomplete data and – at worst – a completely incorrect story. How do you practice curation in your library?