Robin Camille Davis
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"Desk Set" (1957)

August 19, 2010
Tags: film, internet, library

The other day, I watched Desk Set on Netflix Instant, starring a loudmouthed Katharine Hepburn and an aging Spencer Tracy. She's the head librarian at the reference room of the Federal Broadcasting Company in New York; he's a visiting engineer working on a secret supercomputer project that, it is rumored, will render all the librarians obsolete.

Obviously, after reading that description, I had to watch it, seeing as my Library & Information Science classes begin next week. It was an interesting setting for a movie about libraries — this reading room's raison d'être was basically a fact-checking office for a thinly disguised NBC. Script writers would call the librarians asking who had the highest batting average or what all the names of the reindeer were. The librarians would find the answer in a book or, more often, in their memory.

The boss office upstairs at 30 Rockefeller Center

That was interesting to me, that the film showcased librarians as valuable not for their looking-things-up skills, but for the knowledge they had in their heads — and how they could not, therefore, be replaced by a supercomputer.

My kind of library!

Spencer Tracy's character's computer was a room-filling Magic 8-ball: you typed in your query in a question format, and it printed out the answer for you. All the information in the library had to be entered in first by hand. If your question was unclear, it asked you questions back. (Librarian: "How much does the earth weigh?" — Computer: "With or without people?")

As it turned out, though, the computer was not intended as a librarian's replacement. It was installed "to save time for more research." As a librarian's aid. Well, the supercomputer in real life evolved far more than the film dreamed. Now nobody would need to call the reference section about a batting average when they could just Google it. It's funny how the breadth, depth, and ease of the Internet far surpassed what anybody dreamed. But where, I get asked often as a future library science scholar, does that leave libraries? Where does that leave librarians?

Stylin librarians in front of the supercomputer

My canned answer has been that librarians' main job, besides the usual shelving and checking out of books, is not necessarily to know the information, but how to find it. And not necessarily how to find it because it might be tucked away in a dusty old encyclopedia somewhere, but how to find it because there often are too many sources. What's reliable? What do we have access to?

In other news, my next birthday party will have a 1960s Supercomputer theme.