Forgive what I’m about to say. I really liked the novel the Da Vinci Code.
I always thought there was an unsung hero though - the librarian Pamela Gettum, who quietly and methodically helped Robert Langdon crack one of the cryptexes with her deft handling of a library database.
With this somewhat romantic view in mind, it was therefore a thrill to join the ranks of academic, school, public and NHS librarians at the annual CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) conference in Manchester last week. The striking theme across the two days of talks, workshops and briefings, was the power of questions. In an age when information abounds, but not necessarily always the ‘right’ information, it is imperative that we ask questions that elicit the answers to make us responsible and engaged citizens.
Dr Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress, gave a moving account of what it is to be a librarian – a public servant ensuring that the nation’s treasures – both physical and conceptual - are accessible to as many as possible. Carla’s work to encourage young students to tweet questions to - perhaps more staid?! - scholars has proved vital in creating dialogue between the inquisitive, and those who can provide the answers.
This was echoed in a second keynote by Prof. Luciano Floridi who propounded that those who hold most power in our information rich society are those who control the questions. Libraries, he asserts, need to act as a counterbalance to this power by supporting students and citizens to ask free and effective questions. For while a global online search engine might be able to facilitate the asking of questions, it does not in itself provide the information that can answer them, nor ensure that the information has authenticity, authority or quality.
Questions kept recurring. Neil MacInnes, Strategic Lead of Libraries, Galleries and Culture presented on the regeneration of Manchester’s libraries, a process that was led by questions - how far do our libraries engage with the communities they were established to serve? This was further explored in a lively workshop from Selena Killick of the Open University and Frankie Wilson of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford, who encouraged attendees to ask not only ‘what do our stakeholders want?’ but also ‘how can we evidence that we have supported them in this?’. Questions such as this can help to ensure that the library remains at the heart of the community it serves.
Carla Hayden asserted that librarians were the first search engines, able to locate answers out of a raft of information – where would Robert Langdon have been without Pamela after all? It’s poignant that Pamela never featured in the film adaptation, but was instead replaced by a smartphone. But in an age where smartphones brim with fake news and mis-information, it’s an exciting prospect that librarians are being encouraged to assume their role as champions not only of information, but of questions too.