Thursday, April 29, 2010

Organizing Reference

Reference is not something which can be contained within a building … and never was. Reference librarians have, or should have, a well-worn Rolodex (or data file) of contacts – people and institutions – that can get the answers that people want.

This is still true today despite the ubiquity of web pages. When you are confronting a tough problem or a confused person you need the name of someone who can interpret the need.

Unfortunately, reference as “practiced by professionals” still relies upon the individual sitting at a reference desk and his or her ability to scrounge up an answer. The Rolodex may be there, of course, but we need more.

We need a Rolodex (a Memex?) of specialized reference librarians.

Doing this is not easy for a number of cultural reasons and those organizations which could most easily create such a thing (such as library systems) are generally too stressed by financial issues to consider doing it.

But it can be done. The tech to create the reference categories is easy enough.

Which, I suppose, means that I’d best try to do it where I am and see if the notion can spread.

By the way, I also write a weekly newspaper column that has to have a higher priority than this blog. I may, from time-to-time, merely point to it in lieu of writing here.

Here’s my latest in our local version of the TribLocal:

Thursday, April 22, 2010

I'll Bet You Five Bucks

Long ago, when I was actually working at a reference desk, I was accustomed to getting telephone calls to settle bar bets. Mind you, this was long before the World Wide Web came full blown in mind of Tim Berners Lee. Getting answers to the simplest questions wasn’t all that easy … and you wanted to get the answer from a neutral party.

The thing was, one of that library’s employees had a daughter who was a bartender. And since bartenders talk to other bartenders there was a pretty fair number of Chicago area bars that had the library’s telephone number.

We didn’t care. I’m guessing that the director was secretly pleased to be able to add the statistics into what would otherwise have been a pretty miserable count.

Those of us who worked reference there did learn a few useful lessons … the biggest one simply being that almost every one of these questions was one we could answer in a very few moments from the “ready reference” material we kept behind the desk (plus a few sports records books).

This is to say, most people never did want answers to complicated questions. They just wanted answers to simple things and didn’t know how to find them.

The Internet has done the reference profession a service by taking simple questions out of the library … but it does hurt the stats.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Getting a Clue

The novelist William Gibson noted during a 1999 NPR interview: “As I've said many times, the future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed.”

It’s a bit of a problem for those of us providing reference services. To generalize (and I do know of exceptions) those who are in their 70s might as well be on a different planet from those in their 20s. Also, those who live in areas without high-speed Internet access are not experiencing the same world as those who have it.

Whether or not our brave new world is “good” is another matter. Ease in asking a question is not the same thing as knowing what to look for or of knowing how to ask a question … one of the downsides of Google is that few people in their teens and early twenties know how to do a Boolean search, carefully adding or subtracting terms, in order to find gems in the mud.

There’s a sense – perhaps a primitive sense of magic – that the computer “just knows” the answer. That’s certainly the view I get from studies showing that students will seldom look below the first page of search results when doing research.

That actually makes a certain sense. If you don’t “have a clue” as to what comprises a good answer, any answer will do.

The answer to this, of course, is “Get a clue.”

That’s not easy. And that’s one great hope for reference services … as long as our reference department staff members are properly clued and dedicated to staying that way.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Working with Humans

I’ve a brother-in-law who’s a minister. In fact, he’s a Baptist minister. His calling has two definite sides to it.

On the one hand, he’s a “preacher” and has the traditional responsibility of writing and presenting his Sunday sermon. On the other, he’s a “pastor” and charged with tending for the spiritual welfare of his congregation … which, as a practical matter, can be just about anything.

There’s not much training for that in seminaries. There’s a hope that with the right attitude and life experiences as person can find a balance between the two great demands that make up a minister’s calling.

Reference librarians are put in a similar place. On the one hand, there’s the “book learning” needed to understand a question and find an answer. On the other, there’s the learning you need to have in order to understand the person who comes to you with a question … and that’s often a very elusive thing.

Anyway, my brother-in-law chose to read the “classic” novels in order to get more experience with the human condition than he had obtained while growing up on an Iowa farm. This included Dickens, Austen, Dostoevsky, and the like.

I’ve long thought that he made a very good choice and that it’s one that many reference librarians could follow.

Even those of us who were English majors.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Amateur Reference

A book published a couple years ago … that’s 14+ years in “Internet time” … has some bearing on the problems of reference. The title is: The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today's user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values, by Andrew Keen.

Given that you’re reading this on a blog you’d correctly realize that I might have an issue with the premise.

That said, both the current reality (easy Internet searches) and a bit o’ the history that created modern American culture impact reference services. It’s the history that makes the overblown title a bit annoying. Here are five very old issues that make “amateurs taking on more than they should” as American as the proverbial apple pie:

1) Protestant religion
2) The Frontier
3) America’s size
4) Democracy
5) Materialism

The combination of “Protestantism” and “literacy” created an environment favorable to do-it-yourself theology … in large part because it is easy enough to pick out parts of the Bible that fit one’s pre-existing notions.

The Frontier, of course, created a need for self-reliance and a do-it-yourself mentality. The mountain men couldn’t drive to the nearest Wal-Mart when they ran out of beaver traps.

America’s size meant that large percentages of our rural populations were always a long way from any larger town, a half-day’s buckboard ride (and a half-day for the return trip). Self-sufficiency and “amateur” are frequently two sides of the same coin.

Democracy meant – and still means – “do-it-yourself” in the political and judicial spheres. Expertise may, now, mean some minimal educational requirement. Voting (and running for office!) however have few, if any, minimal requirements except being a registered voter.

Materialism has meant getting more. And more. Unless you’ve the money to hire someone else to repair (or completely lack in skills) you’re compelled to do many things yourself … in some areas, that’s a sign of general capability. (I’ll be taping and mudding drywall myself over this next weekend since I’ve a son in college.)

Now, having listed above, is it any wonder that people will avoid going to a reference librarian when a (to them) viable option exists? Hardly. And that’s why libraries have to work very hard to establish that their reference librarians offer something which the do-it-yourselfer lacks.

That’s not always easy.

Monday, April 5, 2010

On Knowledge Management

One of the “new professions” is that of the knowledge manager … a person who is charged with leveraging the “intellectual assets” of a company. It is very akin to what corporate librarians have done since the beginning of the 20th century (and, in my view, why the Special Library Association was formed outside the American Library Association umbrella).

It is more active than librarianship (as generally practiced) inasmuch as the KM practitioner focuses on charting, assessing, cataloging, and publicizing *internal assets* while the librarian focuses on *external assets* … but they are also natural partners since external assets become internal assets once the information is valued and becomes part of an employee’s knowledge. That also works in reverse since internal assets are extremely useful to know about when one is doing a library search.

That said, corporate librarianship … if you’ve a reference background and inclination … has always been about “getting answers.” How was never very important when your immediate need was to establish the value of your services.

(That lesson was drummed into me by a pair of marketing guys. As the saying goes, you can get the answer to a question cheaply, quickly, or accurately – pick two. The library serves to optimize the process. KM brings in a new set of resources.).

That said, KM is not reference librarianship. It creates structures, builds databases, and recognizes relationships … but it doesn’t necessarily do the nitty-gritty work of discovery needed to make good use out of what it creates. Corporate types unfortunately tend to assume that employees will use KM created tools.

Which they will just about as often as they use library resources.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Beyond Reference

I'm about to go on a bit o' vacation, but wanted to first leave the questions:

Why are "reference services" restricted to libraries? Or are they?