BATON ROUGE, LA. — It used to be a given for librarians: "If the building is burning down, save the card catalogue." But as libraries shift focus and format to keep pace with electronic advancements, the old ways have changed dramatically - along with the role of librarians.
"We threw our card catalogue away. It was a wrenching thing to do, but it was useless," says Malcolm Hamilton, librarian at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass.
For Mr. Hamilton and other librarians, requests for assistance scanning the Internet, World Wide Web, and other electronic venus are becoming typical fare.
But as the public develops digitally sophisticated expectations for research, the pressure is growing on librarians to keep pace. Some question whether librarians have the skills to keep their libraries - and themselves - indispensable in the Internet age. What's at stake, they say, is maintaining a public commitment to libraries when electronic resources are readily available, and thus making those resources available to those who can't afford computers.
"In many libraries, there still remain a large number of people who will need extensive retraining if they're to make the transition to electronic information management," says Stanley Wilder, assistant dean for technical and financial services at the Louisiana State University libraries in Baton Rouge.
But the problem seems minimal to Tom Sloan, state librarian at the Delaware Division of Libraries. He admits that librarians and library staff who received training in the pre-computer era have greater training needs than new recruits.
But Mr. Sloan is not worried: Through an active continuing-education program, Delaware librarians with little or no computer experience will learn to go on-line to conduct a search and download information to e-mail or a floppy disk, he says.
Too much hype
"There's too much hype about how different everything is for librarians," Sloan says. "Conceptually, it's no big deal - the outcome remains providing information services. Librarians have been doing that for hundreds of years. The challenge is that it now requires a different set of skills."
Carolyn Coco has seen a range of computer skills and enthusiasm in librarians. Over the last two years, she has trained more than 300 Louisiana public, university, and school librarians to search on-line catalogues and indexes, navigate the Internet and World Wide Web, and retrieve full-text journal articles from different databases.
Ms. Coco, network librarian for the Louisiana Library Network, says that most of her trainees now know how to form a good Internet search, yet admits that many still require help understanding the telecommunications and hardware end of the job.
"If they are unable to do a search, they need to be able to determine, is it something they've done wrong; is there a line down somewhere? They should be able to do this - especially in smaller or rural libraries where they are expected to be a jack-of-all-trades," Coco says.
People need librarians to help make sense of the onslaught of information sources available electronically, says Clifford Lynch, director of Library Automation for the University of California's office of the president.
"New publications appear on the Internet, and it's not clear where they come from. The whole way we evaluate the accuracy or bias of content in print - notions of critical reading and understanding - we're having to relearn all that in the electronic world," Dr. Lynch notes. "This is where a librarian's skills of organizing and evaluating information are invaluable," he says.
The demand for librarians is only growing, says Linda McKell, president of Advanced Information Management, a placement service for librarians in Mountain View, Calif. This year "has been our best year for making personnel placements," she says.
"Librarians should be a real hot commodity," says Ms. McKell. "They can do research more efficiently and effectively than the average net-surfer; they understand how people want to look for something without reinventing the wheel," she says.
Betty Bole Eddison agrees. Nearly 25 years ago, she turned her library degree into a corporate calling card, helping businesses with information retrieval and database searching.
"The Internet is such a seduction for many folks in corporations, but they end up spending valuable time looking around, because they don't know how and they don't know where," she says.
Nevertheless, some observers worry about the competition. With everything from journals to government documents delivered electronically and on-line search engines like Yahoo! that help users hone in on a topic, they question whether the average information seeker will need a traditional librarian in the future.
"To a patron, the added value of convenience in the electronic environment may outweigh the human factor. Librarianship will survive - but not without a fight," says Wilder.
Especially when there are those, he adds, whose competence on the computer allows them to bypass the librarian altogether.
Take Kris Van Orsdel, who needs the Environmental Protection Agency's wetlands budget to finish a project at the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service in Baton Rouge.
Just a few years ago, Mr. Van Orsdel would have had to trek to the library, call on the reference librarian for help, and wait while the librarian found the document.
That was then; this is the World Wide Web. Van Orsdel locates the EPA Home Page on his computer, clicks on the agency's fiscal-year budget, and has the entire document on his computer screen in less than five minutes.
No library; no librarian. But ask him who taught him the skills.
"A librarian," says Van Orsdel. "A librarian first turned me on to the different data bases and helped me find what I wanted."