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June 2, 2015

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Why libraries are relevant in the Google age

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If our Google-powered fingers can do the walking across a computer keyboard and take us through time, space, history and the human condition, do we still need libraries?

Emphatically, yes.

We need them more than ever. Libraries are uniquely positioned to make sense of today’s tsunami-like exposure to information, to allow people to transform facts into knowledge and to move knowledge along divergent paths of practical relevance and unbridled inspiration.

Libraries are uniquely positioned to do this for an audience of all ages and status — children, college students, community members, university scholars, researchers and just plain folks who are just plain curious. From princes to paupers, libraries are a great equalizer and emancipator. In this new environment, we are all students. Libraries — both physical and virtual — are the places where we learn, discover old truths and synthesize new knowledge.

I believe this. I know this with my very being. I am one of those whose life took flight because of opportunities afforded by a library. I am a first-generation Italian-American and one of six children born to immigrant parents. Our family income was below the poverty line. I attended public schools in New Haven, Conn., but I lived in the city’s public library, where I voraciously consumed books in the children’s collection.

I attended Yale University on a full scholarship because generous donors had built a financial structure that allowed for blind admissions — if you could get in on merit, they would support you. At Yale, I was awestruck by the Sterling Memorial Library, a gothic cathedral of knowledge standing with its doors wide open to the community. It was a powerful beacon for a young woman from a poor family who was expected to marry and have babies and not pursue an education.

Years ago, when all of this was taking place, Google was “googol,” a word for the number 1 followed by 100 zeros; a yahoo was an energetic lout; and a bing was a cherry. Important information was conveyed with ink on paper. We didn’t know it then, but they were simpler times. Literacy simply meant knowing how to read.

Now, libraries have moved beyond being mere repositories for shelf after shelf of printed materials, as valuable as that function is. They are gateways to a dynamic world of information and the manner in which that information is collected, presented and used is as important as the information itself.

Now, to be literate, we not only need to know how to read but how to evaluate what we read.

Librarians talk a lot about “information literacy.” The term was coined in 1974 in a report by the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. The United States National Forum on Information Literacy defines it as “the ability to know when there is a need for information, to be able to identify, locate, evaluate and effectively use that information for the issue or problem at hand.”

In today’s scientific and social atmosphere, information literacy has become a jet stream, influencing all aspects of our cultural weather. I am proud to say that the UNLV Libraries are recognized as national leaders in this endeavor. And our work benefits not just students and faculty members of the university but the entire community.

Why is this important? Let’s go back to the beginning when we were Google-walking across the keyboard through the World Wide Web. It is natural to assume that when Google returns 69.6 million results (if you were to Google “information literacy,” for instance) that just about everything there is to find will show up. That would be an incorrect assumption. Search engines such as Google actually can access only a small fraction of the web. The unsearched “deep web” contains good stuff such as new research, journal articles, e-books and other critical information.

The UNLV Libraries have the specialized tools to access all corners of the web, and its professional staff can provide assistance to intrepid information explorers. The libraries at UNLV are a community treasure, and they are open to everyone.

Come to the library. Come in. Be amazed.

Patricia Iannuzzi is the dean of the UNLV Libraries and was honored last week as the librarian of the year by the Association of College and Research Libraries.

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