Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Quo Vadimus?

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Quo Vadimus?

Article excerpt

Lacking any "New Queries," this combined Spring/Summer column begins with two quotations as thought stimulus for those few idle moments on the reference desk or in the dark hours of the night:

"Librarians are a curious enigma. Librarians have a long history of dealing with change, but in a schizophrenic way. They cling to the past, and yet they are often the heaviest users of technologies, such as computing and telecommunications resources."

"The conceptual space of a printed book is one in which writing is stable, monumental, and controlled exclusively by the author. It is the space defined by perfect printed volumes that exist in thousands of identical copies. The conceptual space of electronic writing, on the other hand, is characterized by fluidity and an interactive relationship between writer and reader."

Some thinkers believe the technology of knowledge shapes the very way we think and in turn the way we think the world is organized. Different technologies allow certain ways of thinking and make other ways difficult. An oral tradition, in pre-historical times, built a knowledge base that was fluid, incorporating all sorts of interruptions, questions, and parenthetical introductions. A quill pen required more control over the thought that went into producing a page. A printed work, to be widely disseminated, needed even more editorial control. Once in print, information took on an intrinsic reality and authority. The introduction of hypertext on electronic networks may be stimulating a different way of thinking that is nonlinear and cooperative in much the same way an historical oral tradition developed.

Putting the above thoughts together, can we begin to think about how Reference Service is evolving in an electronic environment? In the King County Library System we have 1,000+ terminals which are being converted to graphical workstations, with access to the full Internet as well as locally loaded databases. We call this process "WAVE." By the time this column appears, all our libraries should have been "Waved." At various times this acronym has stood for "World-wide Access to Virtually Everything" or "Worldwide Access to Virtual Exploring." Now, I suspect that the particular words are less important than the concept of a wave that is in some cases sweeping over staff and public alike--to the extent that some would prefer to use the term tsunami! For simplicity, I would like to use this term wave to refer to the process that reference services in many libraries are experiencing as access to a multitude of world-wide resources becomes available.

I suspect that many Exchange readers, if they have time at all to think about what is happening, are seeing just the spray, the foam, that is reflected from the tops of these successive waves. The deeper motion of the sea beneath (hopefully not to carry this metaphor too far), is not as easy to discern or interpret. However, if we are to make sense of where our profession is going, we need to at some point in time to become a bit more proactive in thinking about the impact of this change.

For instance, assuming there is at least some truth in the first quotation at the beginning of this column, how does our inherent schizophrenia about technology limit our understanding and ability to make the most effective use of the non-linear and rapidly changing world of Internet reference service? We embrace the greatly increased access to resources via the Internet and at the same time rail at the amount of misleading information, the difficulty of drilling down to relevant hits, and the lack of stability of URLs. It is easy to see how this Love/Hate relationship can work against a continuing involvement of the staff in using Web tools. It is much more difficult to develop coping mechanisms.

It is worth remembering that some of the greatest thoughts, aspirations, and development of the human race came from epic, oral storytelling, which formed the basis of much of our worldview as civilization developed. …

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