Digital Virgils: The Digital Library Still Needs Librarians

Sometimes when we imagine the digital future, I think we often imagine it without human beings, at least in terms of trekking through the datasphere, aka searching. The promise of Google is that one can sit down in front of the legendarily simply Google search box and type in a series of queries, perhaps none terribly better phrased or constructed than the one before, until you get something like what you thought you wanted or would get. (The epistemology of search is incredibly fascinating in this way, since our very idea of a successful search is perhaps based on incorrect assumptions about what success will look like. Prior searches might have produced better results, but we were unable to see them.) Google of course has to maintain this appearance, since its entire revenue scheme is based on delivering ads tailored to your searches, placing sponsored links at the top or advertised results to the side. Google’s finances depend upon a fair number of us clicking on these results as successful results.

Add to this the very idea of progress built into almost all Western discourse since the Enlightenment, which is especially forceful in the realm of science and technology, and which frequently figures the diminishing necessity of our fellow human beings, and you get an image of the datasphere largely built on the intelligence of machines who serve our needs dispassionately and objectively. (We always worry about bias and judgement when other people are involved.)

Well, yeah, that *could* happen, but it would be a really bad place for someone like me. Because sometimes, when you really need a very particular thing, it is revealed to you that perhaps your search results are not as good as you think, and you really need a guide, a Virgil to take you by the hand and guide you through the search purgatory of your own making.

All this comes up because as I sat in line waiting to pick up my daughter from school, I engaged in one of the great pleasures of being stuck in traffic, I listened to a podcast. In this case, it was the Harvard Business School’s IdeaCast (which, truth be known, is rather uneven). This particular podcast was an interview with an author of a recent essay in the _Harvard Business Review_ entitled “Restoring American Competitiveness.” The author, Gary Pisano, argued that one of problems with the American engine of innovation is that it isn’t firing on all cylinders. That we had shut down part of the engine when we outsourced so much of our manufacturing overseas. His argument, it seemed to me, was both a grand one, that making and inventing feed each other, and a fine one, that process innovations can often lead to product innovations.

*I need to look up that article*, I thought. When I got home later that day, I first searched, yup, Google. I got to the HBR home page and quickly found the way to get to the article on-line. Or at least the first few paragraphs of the article. The rest I could have for $6.50.

I’m not opposed to paying such a reasonable amount for the sake of my own curiosity, let alone my research. Still, one of the purposes of a library is to pool our resources in order to have a common pool of, well, resources. So I got on-line to see if our library carried the _Harvard Business Review_. My first few searches went awry. I couldn’t find HBR at all. *Well*, I thought, *maybe I’ll have to call in a few favors with the business school folks: surely one of them subscribes.* But it just didn’t seem right that our library didn’t have HBR. *I better call*, I thought.

And so I did and a very patient librarian found our subscription to HBR and the link to the URL that would get me full PDFs. Because I seemed to be trapped in some intellectual-digital acrobatic nightmare, she stayed with me on the phone until I got exactly where I needed to be, which took a while.

And so this post is a tribute to my Virgil, and to the Virgils everywhere, and to let you know that even when *Colossus* goes live, we will still need you.