By Michelle Swanson, an Oregon-based educator and educational consultant
It’s time to consider adding another occupation to the growing list of pandemic-era “essential workers”: Digital Librarian.
With public library buildings closed due to the global pandemic, teachers, students, and lovers of books everywhere have increasingly turned to online resources for access to information. But as anyone who has ever turned up 2.3 million (mostly unrelated) results from a Google search knows, skillfully navigating the Internet is not as easy as it seems. This is especially true when conducting serious research that requires finding and reviewing older books, journals and other sources that may be out of print or otherwise inaccessible.
Enter the role of digital librarian.
The role is not really new—librarians have been going digital for years. School and university librarians are typically early adopters of technology, tasked with training the teachers they serve. In the public high school where I taught during the 1990s, the library was home to the school’s first open-access computers, printers, and computer lab. Our librarian, like countless other school librarians across the nation, was the go-to source for answers to thorny technical questions. By the year 2000, the notion of a digital librarian was already well established in library science literature as a type of information professional who manages and organizes digital resources, provides functionality for information and electronic information services, and remotely mediates between users and resources.
Using Internet Archive, librarians who oversee physical libraries shuttered during the current pandemic can supplement their digital offerings with a massive digital library of over four million books, including many out-of-print titles from the 20th century. Anyone with an email address can borrow books from the Internet Archive for free.
Like other digital librarians, the staff at Internet Archive recognize that curation is important for users to get the most out of the collection. For educators, the library makes it easy to find resources by offering lists categorized by subject, author, reading level, grade level, and year published. In addition, advanced search functions are available to further sort the library’s holdings, including tools that let users search the collection for specific text phrases. Schools that want to fully unlock the potential of Internet Archive’s digital books should have school librarians and classroom teachers explore strategies for incorporating this resource into their distance learning plans.
While digital libraries can’t fully replace the important social and civic role that physical library buildings play in our communities, they do provide a critical service to educators and learners in this time of global need. And guiding learners through these online learning landscapes are our essential guides: the digital librarians.