When I was a teacher teaching adults how to write, how to read, how to write about what they read, I was always surprised that so many of my students, who were adults, not children, knew little of the function and purpose of libraries.

Many of them had not read a book since high school and now had to read several per semester.

Well, to help such students B.G. (Before Google) there was the local librarian, who sat behind a desk or walked the stacks putting books, tapes, disks where they belonged. In fact, that may be all you need to say about why librarians are important: they put things where they belong. To help, they’ve got the alphabet, the Dewey Decimal System, and some kind of connection with a higher Intelligence.

Librarians, I would tell the class, are your best friends. Librarians live to be asked questions, just so they can look up the answers. And they had something that was so ubiquitous you sometimes forgot it was there, stretched along a wall or as an island in the midst of varnished oak and cherry: the card catalog.

This is where you were sent by the librarian when asked for information on, say, the social structure of ants. You went to the drawer labeled Aar–Aza and pulled it out to find it full of index cards that would tell you where in the acres of books your book would be found. But here was the beauty of the card catalog – on the way to the card you needed, you passed other cards that might – and often did –steer you off to a tangent, a completely different subject than what you set out to look up.

For example, on your way to the subject of ants you might be intrigued by aardvarks, and then what? The possibilities are endless.


I’m afraid this will be lost in the rush towards digitalization. Asking Siri reduces the possibilities. Once upon a time when you were in a discussion with friends and you got into an argument about what year Ted Williams hit .400, the argument wasn’t solved until the next day at least, until you could get a reference book – usually at the closest library, or on one of the shelves in your meager home library.

Now you pull out your phone and ask Siri and within seconds you have the answer. (I just did, the answer is, according to Siri, 1941).

Yes, it’s true you don’t need card catalogs anymore (or any less) because now we have the internet and Google. And for all I know the Wizard of Oz is reading a paperback behind the curtain and the entire system can come crashing down.

Despite this, there would be librarians, people who know things, or even better, know how to find things. These librarians are not just born, they are made.

Some days I tuck my laptop computer under my arm and head into town to write rather than at doing it at home. I go to the library and write. It breaks the monotony of working at home, where the phone rings and the carpenter ants wear nail aprons.

Recently I was at the library with my laptop when I couldn’t get the computer to do something. I asked the closest librarian if she or anyone on staff knew how a Mac works. Turns out there is someone who fit that description and who fixed it for me immediately.

How about that, Siri?

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