Alchemical Thoughts

Article Note on Future of Reference in Libraries

Posted on: July 15, 2010

(Note: This is moved over from Blogger, which is being a pain in the ass and unresponsive again. Apparently, it did not want to handle a somewhat long post. Anyhow, you can read it here, and I just linked this over there, which it seems Blogger can  handle. If you want to comment, you can do so here, or back on the Blogger page, where the comments are a bit more open).

Citation for the article:

O'Gorman, Jack and Barry Trott, "What Will Become of Reference in Academic and Public Libraries?" Journal of Library Administration 49 (2009): 327-339.

Read via Interlibrary Loan.

This is basically a speculative piece; it looks at some current trends, and then authors try to tell us what the future holds for academic and public libraries in terms of their reference services. I found a lot here that made me think, and I found myself making a lot of notes on the margins. Some things I agree with, and others I have reasons to disagree. Either way, the article is worth reading, and it may provoke some conversations in libraries, especially at a time when the value of libraries is constantly questioned by those who either do not really use the library or those just looking to save a few bucks.

The article looks begins with an introduction discussing the contrast between the number of people who visit libraries and the number of people who consider the library as a source of assistance with questions. On a positive note, it seems that people are still coming to the library for their information needs once they have tried the Internet and failed. The authors argue that libraries will continue to have a role in working with patrons, even if those roles will evolve and/or change. We may need to have a serious look at our core values as well.

As usual for me, I am just going to make some notes of items that caught my interest with some comments.

  • "Students would not pick up a printed reference book to save themselves hours of time" (327). One thing these students need to learn is not so much "don't use Wikipedia" as when to use Wikipedia and when to go beyond it. Another thing: in many of my library instruction classes I do teach about printed reference books. As I always tell my students, a good reference book will do three things for you: it will give you a good overview of your topic; it will give you suggestions and ideas of keywords and terms you can then type into an article database to expand your research, and it will give you a small list of items for further reading. A good reference book can save students research time as well as expand their research. But this is something that we librarians need to point out to them.
  • The authors are citing the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which "notes that while 53% of all Americans visited a library in the previous year, only 13% considered the library as a source for assistance in dealing with a specific question" (328). I thought of this as I had a little bit of a tiff over at Digg. Yes, I do use and read items from Digg. I rarely if ever comment because I do have the account linked to my Facebook, so it shows my real name. Should I have considered setting it up with a pseudonym? Probably, but that is another post. Anyhow, what happened was someone dugg a story about Matthew Lesko. I made the comment that much, if not all, the information that Lesko puts in the books he peddles are things that anyone could find for free. The nameless person who replied said that who cared because Lesko was making it convenient (actually, he or she, probably he, was less polite than that, but this is an online forum not known for civility). I replied that, if a person did not want to do their own research, that any good librarian would be happy to help them do it, for free, and without trying to sell them anything. In the end, the pseudonymous commenter still preferred the sub-par "convenience" of paying Lesko money for a book of dubious value than asking for help from an expert. I learned a couple of things from the encounter. One, people who do not put their name on a profile rarely are reasonable or willing to listen to alternatives even when the alternatives may be favorable (ok, I sort of knew that one, but this was a reminder). Two, I thought of incident as I was reading the article and found the statistic from Pew. Most people do not think about going to the library (or calling the library or even contacting it online somehow) to answer basic questions. And let's not even go into the issue of verifying any information there is out there for things like accuracy, so on. Again, as long as there are people who prefer "convenience" over accuracy, I will have a job.
  • "Librarians have an important role to play in teaching patrons how to use online resources and in helping users sort through the vast amount of information that is available in electronic format" (328). It is not just pointing them to the databases and hoping for the best. We will need to teach them how to use the database, but more importantly how to focus and create a search strategy, how to come up with keywords, etc. In other words, we will teach them not only how to use a database but the skills they need to go from one electronic resource to the next. The authors also argue that librarians will have a role in the mediation of information, that is, someone who can sort through all the chaff in order to get the good, relevant stuff.
  • "Reference work has always been about helping the user find the best information, and the skills librarians have developed in this area will prove useful in the coming years–that is, if librarians are willing to take on this role" (328). The key operative words in that sentence are "if librarians are willing to take on this role." If they are willing and able to take the role seriously instead of just keeping an illusion of strict neutrality. If they are willing and able to take the role seriously instead of just falling back into the role of technolusty 2.0 toy peddlers.
  • Another reason why I expect to remain employed: "If anything, in this complex information environment, students and public library users require even more assistance. Finding and critically evaluating information are skills that are necessary, yet are not necessarily being taught" (329). Guess who should be doing that teaching and educating. 
  • The authors go on to mention common suggestions about librarians need to rove, for academic librarians to have office hours in academic departments, and to do a better job in promoting what they do. This is not new; it has been mentioned in the literature, but it is still a good reminder. The part about roving is especially important. You have to get up from the reference desk and at least walk around your library once in a while to engage your patrons. The attitude of "if they need anything, they can come ask" (which I have heard from other librarians) is not going to cut it.
  • Some questions I commonly ask: ". . .what happens to electronic collections when the library decides it can no longer afford a particular database. For many users, there will be issues relating to access to these resources, particularly remote access for users without Internet connections or using dial-up connections" (330-331). Issues with remote access are pretty common at my library, especially with folks in more rural areas who may still be on dial-up (if they are lucky). I always get the vibe that a lot of the profession works on the assumption that everyone has a fast Internet connection no matter where they are, so therefore no need to worry about those who may not have access. The vibe seems to be to make services for those with the fast connections, often disregarding the rest. It's something that personally and professionally bothers me.
  • Then again, librarians have their bad habits too: "Nonetheless, the trend for many librarians is to start with electronic resources first. If librarians are going straight to the Web, then we certainly cannot fault our users for doing the same" (331). Give me a librarian who knows his/her reference collection well and knows how to use it. That seems to be a decreasing skill in the new and upcoming librarians. I try to balance things depending on the request. Articles? I do online to our databases. Ready reference? I will try for the reference book. In the end, it is about what the patron needs, so I use whatever resources I have on hand.
  • "The question is, do we have enough to serve the information needs of our clientele? If the answer is yes, then we need to ask if we are doing enough to encourage the use of the content we already have?" (332). We have to promote our resources as well as teach users how to use them. Buying another database is not always the solution, even if some faculty member thinks so (yes, another little experience I've had to deal with). If we have the resources to meet the information needs, we need to make sure promote and educate the patrons on how to use those resources and what needs such resources can meet.
  • "There are a lot of tools out there, but librarians do not always make the best use of these resources. Continued staff training on these databases and continued awareness of what these resources are useful for is essential for maintaining staff skills that will then translated into useful assistance for library patrons" (332). This points to the importance of good, substantive, and continuous professional development. This is a big reason also why I take time on my own to review resources in print and electronic formats. It is so I know what is available and how to use it in order to help my patrons. A good exercise in this regard has been posting to the library's blog on reference resources. When I implemented our library's blog, I put in a feature known as "The Reference Book of the Week." This type of post allows me to highlight a reference item from our collections for our patrons. In reviewing the item, I learn more about the item or, if it is an item I know already, I get to review its usefulness. I write those posts keeping the following question in mind: why would I want to use this? Here is a sample post. 
  • "Librarians have a strong professional commitment to finding information that is both accurate and has the backing of some authority. However, in the Wikipedia culture, there seems to be an increasing willingness to accept electronic information as accurate without critical analysis of the sources" (332). This reminded me of an article out of LOEX Quarterly I just read
  • "Librarians could simply respond to user disinterest in these areas by giving the user what they want without regard to accuracy or confidentiality concerns" (332). And a good number of librarians already do that; it's not something I agree with. The authors continue to write, "we would argue, however, that librarians have a responsibility to uphold an important foundation of the profession, a commitment to accuracy and the best information as well as to intellectual freedom and privacy. Only by doing so in a visible fashion will we ever be able to communicate the importance of these concerns to our users" (332). I think the part about the commitment to accuracy and best information and intellectual freedom and privacy should be engraved in plaques and placed in every reference desk as far as I am concerned. I think also we should make sure, both in library school and in the field, that the librarians we hire meet and embody those values. If they do not, fire them for they are not giving our patrons the best service possible. We have to lead by example, and we have to continue to educate our patrons and promote our services and values and show they best serve our patrons. It is those values that make us who we are as a professionals and what sets us apart from the Internet noise, misinformation peddling pundits, and other poor substitutes for good accurate information and resources.
  • The authors additionally discuss reader's advisory briefly, which is a topic of interest for me. Personally, I don't think academic libraries are paying enough attention to recreational reading needs of their students, but I think things may be getting better. I know that I do get the occasional question about "what can I read that is good?" or similar. I also try to post awards lists on the library's FB as a way to promote reading when I can. While I do post book reviews of items I read in my GoodReads page (the page is linked on the right side column of this blog, and some of those reviews make it to my blogs), I would like to do some reviews for the library blog. I do read one or two of the new books that arrive now and then. I think it could be a good promotional tool. However, that has not proven as easy. For one, the writing style would be a bit different (probably a bit more formal for the library blog), and it would be nice to get other librarians and library staff to contribute (a suggestion I made that met with some indifference at the time I suggested it). Anyhow, I still like the idea. The authors writes, "the role of extracurricular reading in academic institutions is also being more carefully examined (Elliot, 2007). Readers' advisory services offer academic librarians an opportunity to expand their role and to reach out to their users in new ways" (336). The Elliot citation is an article I have read. Here is the link to my note on it. And while we are on the RA topic, my two readers may also want to see this article by Smith and Young on the subject as it applies to academic libraries. 
  • Finally, the authors conclude that "coupled with a user-centered focus, reference librarians should also reaffirm their commitment to the essential foundations of our profession: service to users, intellectual freedom, and an openness to change" (338). I don't think we need to say much more. Let's get to work.

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