Who loves you like the library?
Published: September 26, 2003
|"We need [libraries] more than ever. The Internet is full of 'stuff' but ... 'stuff' doesn't give you a competitive edge; high-quality, reliable information does." |
-Patricia Schroeder, president, American Association of Publishers
If you're a writer who suspects that Google and other Web search engines have made libraries passé, either you haven't used a first-rate library lately or you've been swayed by articles calling libraries a waste of time next to Web speed and currency.
Show me such articles, and I'll show you a concept of libraries going back 30 years to card catalogs and musty collections hemmed in by stony walls. Those hushed mausoleums may be a romantic notion for some writers, but not enough to interrupt their hot affair with the Web.
No one denies that the Web is a miracle for writers and a barmy alternative to certain research drudgery. Even its so-called "advanced" searches are like pumping brewskies from a barrel. But take it from an avid Web user with career backgrounds in writing and library service: The true font of inspiration, knowledge and reliable, in-depth information is still the library--better than ever and, more than ever, the writer's best friend.
Sifting and scrolling through 60,000 Web hits may seem like the fast lane, especially given the speed of copying and downloading. But notice who's at the finish line signing autographs: Web users who also ride the wings of libraries. At the library, writers upgrade their work and the chances of getting published as they:
Discover gems in selectively acquired, precisely classified materials;
Use the most complete and authoritative resources, most of them time tested, well edited and indexed, and containing full text;
Reach into the full human record, the repository of the past--including archives and primary sources, not just articles from the last few decades;
Explore controversial topics with little fear of privacy invasion; and
Pore through choice graphic materials--maps, portraits, period settings--most of them organized, detailed and captioned.
At the library, writers eyeball competitive works to see what others have said, what needs to be said, and what the market might bear. As for market information itself, they use guides such as The Writer's Handbook and Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents in their full, fat, organized and freely offered editions.
At the library, writers also study the target publications themselves--whole runs of magazines and journals, not just page-at-a-time Web teasers awash in marketing.
And this is only the beginning of the library advantage. Imagine a killer app that would take you from total confusion to the very sources that will distinguish your writings. It's not in your software; it's at the library, in the form of user-friendly information experts--librarians.
In a recent interview, author and management consultant Peter Drucker called librarians a "secret" of his success. Unlike the Web, he said, library classification "and the librarian convert the chaotic and unlimited universe of data into information." This is no consultant jargon. You may have noticed that Web classification has the feel of a universe sorted by bulldozers and the Shopping Channel. Writers searching the Web for deep background often face two jobs: first, to organize the chaos of thousands of vastly uneven and questionable citations; then, to do the research. At the library, the organization part has been done, carried out by skilled, user-oriented minds, not "spider bots," those robot-like programs that search the Web for data.
"As often as not," says upcoming novelist Leslie Stella (The Easy Hour), "what I get on the Web has been subjected to considerable 'link rot' [dead links]. Sources cannot be substantiated. And while researching at the library, I've never suffered through pop-up advertising, surprise porn sites or online diaries [blogs]."
|The block and the myths|
Do you have "library block"? Inertia nails many writers to the keyboard even when they suspect they should get themselves to the stacks. Perhaps bad habits were formed in college, where undergraduates tend to stick to what they can find online. Sometimes library block stems from experiences in third-rate libraries--isolated rural branches, underfunded urban systems or just poor operations. But writers can usually find better libraries in the same areas (see related article).
And then there are library stereotypes and misconceptions. To shine light on what libraries can actually do for writers today, let's dispel some of the worst notions:
Libraries are downers; most are dying On the contrary, statistics gathered by the American Library Association show ever-increasing action. The nation's 16,300 public library buildings outnumber McDonald's outlets and do a whopping business--some 21 million weekly walk-ins who borrow over 1.7 billion items yearly. Public and academic librarians answer more than 7 million reference questions each week and guide users to digital sources. With thousands of new or brightly refurbished facilities, libraries are upbeat environments.
Libraries never have what I need Sometimes library users give up before checking the library's online catalog or asking the reference staff for fugitive items. What's needed may be not on the shelves but in one of the many specialized databases that libraries now lease. Even if your local branch strikes out, somewhere libraries have what you need, and it can be found through powerful "union" catalogs. Interlibrary loans have been revolutionized by electronic networks. Librarians have a customer-service credo: "If we don't have it, we'll try to get it for you"--something you won't hear on the Web.
Libraries are low-tech Libraries helped pioneer the digital revolution and remain on the cutting edge, with special expertise in "user interface"--technology without intimidation. You name it: easy-to-use public terminals for searching the nation's shelves or a cosmos of databases; Internet workstations and helpful instruction; high-speed and wireless connectivity; digitized journal and book collections; 24-hour online services; loans of electronic media, software and handheld devices; behind-the-scenes technology for fast cataloging and delivery. All this plus civilization's most trusted storage device: print.
|Libraries and the Web are at odds Hardly. Spurred by the power and ease of Web searching, libraries have integrated it into their offerings, adding value to traditional services and shaping collections to complement Web information. For the 55 percent of American households still lacking Internet access, libraries are the main Web connection. Writers away from home can use libraries for e-mail or Web searches. Librarians have also created some of the finest research sites on the Internet (see related article). |
Libraries have little that can't be found on the Web Wrong. Here are just five library exclusives that every writer can bank on:
Libraries can serve up zillions of printed books--books, a format that gives meaning and order to details. "The Web couldn't tell me how JFK's grandfather died," author Ilene Cooper (Jack: The Early Years of John F. Kennedy) informs us. "I needed library books. On the Web, you can't always find the detailed sources, much less cross-check them or get the whole story." Does the Web have books? Yes, but only some 25,000, mostly pre-1925 or self-sponsored. It has 2 billion-plus pages of other items (including catalogs, porn and blogger babble), but a typical search engine is said to miss about 80 percent of them.
Libraries subscribe to scads more periodicals-both print and digital--than what's available free on the Web. And for long-ago back issues, you need libraries, period.
Libraries have special collections (including archives and local history) for deep research on narrow topics. These painstakingly gathered materials yield the authentic details that serious authors need. No one writes credible history, science or social science from the Web.
Libraries do what they have always done: They pool community resources to buy expensive materials for sharing. Today, that means major reference works (print and electronic) like specialized encyclopedias, indexed government databases, biographical series, magazine indexes and vast photo archives--premium items not on the Web because no one gives this stuff away.
Libraries offers free research consultants who make Jeeves (of the Ask Jeeves search engine) look doltish. Librarians know the collections, the research paths, the tools and the tricks, and they love--yes, love--to help. They are zealots. What's all that worth to a writer? Check the acknowledgments of almost any researched book. Barbara Kingsolver once put it this way: "I'm of a fearsome mind to throw my arms around every living librarian ... ."
|The intangible edge|
The Web is cool, but the library is magic. Where else can the spirit of generations of writers stir your soul? So many writers talk about libraries setting them on their magical paths, it's almost a groaner. But we know it's true. Wander through the stacks and you can feel the dreams, the unique worlds bubbling within each volume. The magic enters you as if by osmosis. On the Web, you may feel clever, lucky and driven to download--but rarely inspired to dream and to write.
Library magic conjures yet one more inspiration. A young student expressed it perfectly in a news feature some 25 years ago: "In a liberry [sic], it's hard to avoid reading." It's more like impossible for writers who wander among shelves and racks of eye-catching titles, headlines, covers and spreads. In a library, writers will inevitably start reading, not only what they came for but chance items that fire up new ideas, make connections and expand horizons. No "link rot" here.
Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, calls aimless library wandering one of her great joys. Bestselling author Erik Larsen, who relies very little on Internet research, is another who admits to being a "library junkie." Larsen got the idea for Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History while browsing 19th-century articles in a specialized library.
The Web can be a writer's friend in need, especially when the need is for on-demand, "good-enough" answers. But who loves you like the library? The library inspires. The library lends writing and language tools. The library profession vigorously protects your right to read and, by extension, your freedom to write on any topic. The library sustains midlist and small-press publications--poetry itself. It houses writing facilities, writing groups and author readings. The library cares whether or not you've found what you need to know.
If the Web were to shut down tomorrow, we would survive as writers. Without libraries ... I wouldn't bet on it.
--Posted Sept. 26, 2003