Do librarians really like to search?

January 10, 2007

Everyone in librarianship has probably heard Roy Tennant’s well-known quote, which states that, “Librarians like to search, everyone else likes to find.” I have considered the ramifications of this quote every so often, especially when someone uses it for the umpteenth time. In a meeting at work recently, someone giving a presentation quoted Tennant’s aphorism. This prompted me to find out more about this quote, and to write my own thoughts about it.

Since I didn’t know the exact quote, I did a search for “librarians search find tennant” on Google. From what I can tell, it initially appeared in an October 2001 Library Journal article entitled Digital Libraries- Cross-Database Search: One-Stop Shopping. In the article, he talks about searching in multiple databases through a single interface. The first paragraph contains his iconic quote:

    You know you want it. Or you know someone who does. One search box and a button to search a variety of sources, with results collated for easy review. Go ahead, give in—after all, isn’t it true that only librarians like to search? Everyone else likes to find.

If I understand the mildly suggestive first sentence correctly, I wonder if Tennant was actually saying that librarians wanted the same thing as users. At the end of the second paragraph, he actually seems to be reassuring librarians that they can perform such searches:

    In the past, we might argue that such a wide-ranging search service was too difficult or impossible to build. It remains difficult, certainly, but such a service can no longer be called impossible, as these examples show.

Tennant lists several services that would allow librarians and users to gather search results more easily from a variety of resources. He concludes by saying that implementing such systems will pose challenges, but that librarians realize the importance of trying to work with them.

Looking at Tennant’s article, it does not sound like an admonishment with his aphorism at the center. It actually encourages librarians with the prospect of making searches easier for everyone, albeit with some hard work at the “backend.” However, it seems that Tennant’s quote has taken on a life of its own. To librarians hearing it for the first time, it can sound like some kind of admonishment. It’s easy to picture “everyone else” growing impatient with some bunned and Birkenstocked librarian, who enjoys tinkering around in a database while their patrons just want a quick ‘n’ easy answer.

Such an image seems unfair to librarians. It may appear that we like to search, but it’s probably because we know the difficulties of hunting for things in prepackaged databases with differing standards for indexing. If patrons have the time to listen, we feel an obligation to explain to them the quirks and “workarounds” of various databases so that they can find what they need.

Speaking for myself, I am a librarian who likes to find, as in the case of doing background research for this posting. I don’t want to spend a bunch of time hunting for resources when I could be “synthesizing” and writing about them. Besides, even though I exercise courtesy with patrons, I don’t have the time to “like” searching (though I do like the end result, which is finding). I have too many other obligations as a professional librarian, including guiding patrons through the idiosyncrasies of various databases. Every so often (but less frequently than when I started), I do use subject headings, etc., in the event of an emergency. I mainly do so to lessen the distance between my patrons and the information they need.

Pondering Tennant’s quote, it almost sounds like saying, “Garbage collectors like to gather trash. Everyone else likes to throw it out.” Like garbage collectors who take away what we don’t want anymore, librarians try to help patrons sift through “infotrash” so that they can find the information they really need. Until we develop perfect search systems, the assistance of a fellow human who understands the craziness behind searching will remain a necessity.

4 Responses to “Do librarians really like to search?”

  1. Great post! I’d love to hear how Google integrates into the life of a librarian amongst the various physical and other digital indexes widely-used by librarians.

  2. sandrar Says:

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

  3. jenna Says:

    Sign: yyams Hello!!! punht and 843dhursyvpxd and 7004 My Comments: Cool!

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