Neil Gaiman’s famous quote about libraries: A critique

In a recent writing project I was working on, I had occasion to refer to a quote about libraries from author Neil Gaiman. The quote, which you can find on tons of posters and t-shirts, goes like this:

“Google will bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian will bring you back the right one.”

The reason I used the quote was that I thought it was a good illustration of how librarians like to think of themselves (and for others to think of them) as research experts. The quote basically says: Librarians—better than Google!

The truth is, though, that I really kind of hate this quote and others like it from celebrities and authors (and celebrity authors) about what they see as the value of libraries. I would go so far as to say that this quote specifically is bad for information literacy.

Let me explain why.

First, quotes about libraries from famous authors and celebrities are a little like the “Get Well” or “Thinking of You” type greeting cards you might get from someone who doesn’t actually know you very well. Like, they’re very nice and all but compared to a card from someone who does know you, there’s something a little off about them. They ring a little hollow. I mean, authors and celebrities may very well love libraries and do what they can to support and promote them. But more often than not quotes like these feel like nothing so much as PR to me.

Those are some concerns I have about quotes like these in general. I also have some feelings that are specific to this quote.

To be clear, I have nothing against Neil Gaiman. I’ve enjoyed many of his books, especially the Sandman series. I recognize that he is a Great Writer and very deserving of all the awards and accolades that he has received, including many from libraries and library organizations. I also recognize that the quote in question comes from an interview situation where it was delivered somewhat off the cuff. Like, it wasn’t a planned speech or a written remark and he had no way of knowing that it was going to end up on a bunch of library merchandise as soon as he said it. He’s also said other things about libraries in other places that are more accurate and eloquent.

But I still hate this quote.

There’s a tendency to talk about librarians and Google in opposition to each other that I don’t agree with. This comes from a lot of anxiety about common perceptions of how the internet has in some ways “replaced” librarians by making it easy for people to search for and access information on their own from home. The tendency to question why libraries still exist when there’s Google is real and I get that comparing librarians favorably to Google is a shorthand for arguments about why people should still use libraries and why we should still receive funding. But setting up this comparison where libraries are supposedly “better” than Google makes us sound pretty much like the dinosaurs non-librarians think we are. Like we’re in denial about how people search for and interact with information these days. Personally, I think the question of whether library databases and librarians are actually better than Google depends on the context of the research being done. And as an information literacy instructor, my goal isn’t to get anyone to stop using Google—it’s to help them use it better by taking the time to evaluate what they find there and becoming better aware of the surveillance Google builds into their products.

Speaking of information literacy instruction, I spend a lot of time in my teaching disabusing students of the notion that when it comes to research there is a “right” answer. Too often students view the research process as a search for the right answer rather than what it should be: a process where you will inevitably encounter competing perspectives and you have to negotiate meaning from that sometimes contradictory information. When library users believe there is a right answer and it’s the librarian’s job to find it, this inevitably leads to a lot of frustration. If your question has an answer that’s objectively correct and easy to look up (like: how many feet are in a mile), it’s not a research question. Everything else is a matter of interpretation and while it may be possible to find out what the most common interpretation or understanding is, that’s not the same as a “right” answer.

Even if there was a right answer when it comes to research, it’s not my job to give answers.(1) At the reference desk, my job is to point users to the best sources that I know about (which may be another librarian with more subject expertise than me) and then let them judge what they find for themselves from there. As an instructor, I teach students how to think critically about the information they find, use, and create so they can make better judgments and negotiate meaning from competing perspectives more knowledgeably and skillfully.

So that’s why I grind my teeth every time I see this quote from an author and library advocate whose work I’ve enjoyed and generally respect. For a quote that Gaiman delivered off the cuff, it certainly sounds cool and fits well on a bumper sticker. I just think as a representation of the value of libraries and librarians, it misses the mark. By a lot.

*

(1) I mean, if someone came to the reference desk and asked me how many feet there were in a mile, I’d look it up for them. I’m not a monster.

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