I hate to even bring this up, because I have benefited from the current system of hiring professional librarians to staff the reference desk, but I'm going to anyways. Maybe it will play right into the hands of every director and budget manager looking for ways to cut spending, but I want to face things honestly. So I'm asking the question: Do we need professional librarians to staff public reference desks?
Having experienced the joy of uninterrupted work this summer, now that I am no longer scheduled every day at the reference desk, I cannot pretend to be objective about this. Personally I think that 90 percent of the time I'm sitting at the reference desk could be better spent in my office -- concentrating on LibGuides, working with faculty, creating library support services for students in online classes, fixing the e-reserves system, etc. etc. etc.
However, this is not to say that students don't need orientation to the library and, more importantly, the global information environment. It's just that those are not the needs I encounter at the reference desk. Rather, the majority of the needs at the reference desk are directional or technical, and have nothing to do with library services. In fact, most of the students I see at the reference desk would be better served by staff at the Tutoring Center or the Computer Lab. Also, I strongly suspect that of the reference questions I do get, students would find satisfactory solutions independently if I wasn't sitting near their computers.
I know a fair number of patrons, not to mention librarians, who would kick and scream about this prognosis. But to me it's a practical matter: The number of hours I'm at work are limited, and so how can I spend them most productively in terms of being useful to the library and the college? I would be thrilled to provide help by appointment. I can accept having a 'librarian on-call' status from my office. I'm happy to provide library orientation and information literacy instruction by scheduling classes and having students come to the library classroom to use computers. What I am not so happy about are the hours at the reference desk, when I think my time could be deployed more usefully and efficiently doing other things.
So where does this leave the 'traditional' reference desk? To quote myself: Ultimately, I'm afraid it is at best ornamental. There, I said it.
A long-awaited project that's finally getting done this summer is weeding the print reference collection. While it wasn't that bad, a fair number of books are now slated for discard. The problem, if that's what to call it, is that much of the updated information is available free online (think U.S. government info) or accessible through our online resources, and so we're not inclined to shell out big bucks to replace the print sources. This leaves our print reference collection looking, frankly, a bit sad. And so we've been meditating on the state of the reference collection more broadly.
First, what is the reference collection? Once upon a time, it was the section of the library holding the expensive books not to be checked out. It was the place to find definitions, directories, and introductions. It was the place to orient yourself to a field or to a set of ideas. The reference collection was full of sources for facts, but not necessarily the types of sources that dominate a typical bibliography. A good deal of 'reference'-type information is considered common knowledge in the field.
Nowadays, the reference collection at our library is not heavily used, because so much of the information is online. It is no longer imperative to consult a book when recalling the succession of monarchs in England, for example, or when looking for a summary of Freud's dream theory.
Still, it's hard to stare at shelves of print volumes and declare them useless. Some books do not contain inaccurate as much as dated information and viewpoints. Consider perspectives from before this decade's historical events like the terrorist attacks of September 11 or the election of President Obama. (Never mind historical events that are currently unfolding, as in Iran.) Shouldn't a reference collection contain the most up-to-date information on given subjects? An encyclopedia of Dante retains its basic usefulness, but what about an encyclopedia of terrorism, or torture, or international human rights? (On a side note, here's a great TED talk about how information is now "global, social, ubiquitous and cheap.")
For many information needs, a modern reference collection is just...the web. The word 'reference' is dropping out of common vocabulary. I'm not sure how often it even occurs to many people to look in print sources for basic reference questions. It seems like they only come to the library looking for a reference book when the information they need is so obscure, or they are so unfamiliar with a topic, that they do not know how to search online for it.
For the (few) patrons who come looking for them, we still do collect encyclopedias -- but mostly as e-books. We also have e-book versions of other reference titles, and beyond that, online reference collections that are searchable by a single search box and accessible with a few clicks from home.
So where does this leave the 'traditional' (print) reference collection? Ultimately, I'm afraid it is at best ornamental.
There is an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education's June 12 issue, "Reading Dickens Four Ways" where a dean at the City University of New York read a Charles Dickens novel using various formats -- paperback, audio book, iPhone, and Kindle -- and then reported her observations.
I found myself agreeing with many of her thoughts. Here are some of the highlights:
"The days of prearranged and rigid formats are over. Sadly, so is the editorial intervention that authenticated and improved content. The future of all publishing is an open question."
"I'm not gloomy, though. We will still find our way to quality. We will find new ways to seduce the next generation of readers. Creative people are beginning to exploit interactive and multi-media capability into digital books. Tomorrow's readers will immerse themselves in their favorite books, not self-consciously as I did for this experiment, but based on deeper needs. It will be just the sort of seamless decision we make every day when we decide whether we will place a phone call, send an e-mail message or text message or photo or video, handwrite a note, or make a personal visit."
I couldn't have said this better myself, so I'm not going to try. But I do want to point out that this is representative of the myriad choices we face today when simply trying to get from point A to point B. To some people this is a pleasant matter of asserting a preference, but for others it may be overwhelming to the point of exasperating. (I'm thinking of certain people faced with the menu options at Starbucks.)
I think it's the price we pay, for the customizable options we expect.
ornamental magnolia (sweet bay? swamp?), on campus after rain
I've been thinking about how the process that librarians and others have labored over for many years -- how to find stuff -- is now as natural as breathing for many people.
...Or is it that simple? My perceptions may be skewed by the undergraduates I encounter at the community college: If something is hidden from a google search, it's too obscure to bother with. The idea that there is a process associated with searching for information is typically greeted with hostility. (Of course there are also atypical students who are surprised and interested to learn about it.)
If students are really stuck, sometimes they resign themselves to listening to me, but I notice that the news about a process associated with finding information seems to induce eye-rolling rather than alacrity. Common barriers to access are greeted with incomprehension (and sometimes apoplectic frustration). This goes beyond youthful impatience, and I'm still learning how to cope with this wall of refusal to stop and think about how to find needed information when standard practice seems to be 1) google, 2) if it doesn't appear, conclude it must not be there, so 3) student is off the hook because she/he tried (unless the prof decides to be a big jerk).
All this is probably because research is boring work to a lot of people. Not only is the end result of research more work, in the form of reading and study, but when someone wants to find out about X, they're thinking about X rather than the information ecosystem surrounding X. Luckily that's where librarians come in...
On Monday morning this past week, staff arrived at work to discover that internet connectivity was zero. Local emails could be sent and received, but email from outside the college could not. Connection to college pages was possible but slow, with normal features malfunctioning. The situation apparently extended beyond the campus and, we were told, was the result of a utility fire in Philadelphia.
Suddenly bereft of 80 percent of my usual activities, I began weeding some books from the reference collection -- a project long put on hold. I assumed this would be something I would not need the internet for, but I was wrong. First, there was no ability to check "if this book wasn't here, could a patron find the information on the internet?" Nor could I look at how many other libraries keep it in their reference collections. Nor was there a way to check if there was a more updated edition/version. In fact, I couldn't even tell if our own library had a more current resource online.
Suddenly I felt very much alone, without the online community that I so frequently rely on. In fact I felt deprived of a basic function, and I caught myself repeatedly reaching for something and then remembering it wasn't there, as though the internet was a sweater or a pencil or a drink of water. I caught myself opening web pages to look something up or follow a lead, then running into a wall.
We simply aren't building our systems to be offline. Library services on that day were stymied -- we couldn't reliably locate a book in our own collection, never mind check it out to a patron or connect to an ebook. And all those students who emailed themselves their papers to print out at the library were out of luck.
I suppose I should be thankful for this reminder of how web-based my productivity is, but in fact the experience made me irritable. I should have glorified in the additional contemplative space allowed to me, but instead I spent most of the day impatient for the fix so that I could go back to doing things properly. Perhaps it's true that decisions were less hasty, but fewer things were completed. In a small way, it was like being on vacation at work. I had to fight my initial impulse to go home to work and use the internet there, and if I were my own boss I probably would have done so.
Instead, faced with boredom and lack of opportunity for action, I turned to what I often do in times like these: brainstorming & writing. And so this post is a gift both to and from the internet outage, for without the outage I would not have stopped to think and write about it.
(Thank goodness everything was back to normal the next day.)