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.

1 comment:

  1. We've done a very poor job of establishing that we offer something extra. Several libraries I know have thrown over the reference function entirely, conceding it to the bots. That is, they've given up.