Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Being Organic Gives Reference Librarians the Edge over Computers

Magazine article Computers in Libraries

Being Organic Gives Reference Librarians the Edge over Computers

Article excerpt

A few years ago, the San Francisco Bay Region Chapter of the Special Libraries Association hosted a special dinner meeting that featured a screening of the classic movie Desk Set. For those who haven't seen it, the plot (in brief) involved a showdown between corporate librarians and the new computer that was planned to replace them. To make a long story short, the machine malfunctioned, the librarians won, and Spencer Tracy won Katharine Hepburn's heart--entertainment on several levels.


In thinking about what librarians continue to do better than electronic systems, I can't help feeling that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The difference is that the knowledge work corporate librarians performed in the mid-20th century involved fewer media types than it does today. And nowadays, more people, with varied titles, are doing that work in many niches throughout organizations.

The "showdown" between humans and computers is a frequent theme in movies and literature, and it's intriguing how frequently librarians appear in space-age science fiction and fantasy, often with extra powers and political clout. Everyone loves a good story, especially when it turns conventional thinking on its head to make a point. It's interesting that reference providers must perform that very thought process--turning a question on its head to deconstruct its meaning--every day. I've provided reference service for 17 years, and I remain convinced that the information profession's critical edge has everything to do with reference counsel. Moreover, I think it's possible to argue this point very assertively without falling into the trap of being a Luddite. Alice Youmans, one of my colleagues at Berkeley Law Library, once said, "... in my experience, the media we use to help people find the answers they need are constantly changing, but the actual work of reference stays the same." What has changed is that we now must constantly engage in strategic marketing of services, and make a commitment to tailor all library services to focus on users.

Relationships: Killer App

I know what you're thinking: another opinion piece on reference, blah, blah, blah. But think about why the library profession appeals to so many people, particularly as a second career. I see two main draws that bring people to library school. The first is the unmistakable fact that, in a digital era, we're all using electronic media; there are many ways to accomplish similar tasks; and a lot of people are aware that they could be doing a better job, whether just for fun or for work. The second, I strongly believe, is that ours is a "helping profession," with librarians assisting patrons in much the same way that psychotherapists, nurse practitioners, and other healthcare or legal professionals help their clients. That's a privileged relationship, and it carries a duty of care. Katharine Hepburn's character in Desk Set was very aware of this, and of the value point that her knowledge work offered the firm. She personified a dedicated and imaginative professional who understood one of the most important "memes" of the information age: Relationships determine success, and knowledge work is all about relationships.

When I speak of reference, I am speaking broadly. Every contact with the public that we experience in our physical spaces counts, no matter how simple. For example, in one library I worked at, circulation staff members were allowed only one answer to any question (beyond those about charging out books) before they had to say, "Go to the information desk." This told the patron that she had only begun to learn about what was available, and that she could talk to people who could help more. Nowadays, reference often happens online, referrals come from Web sites, and services like Google Answers purportedly perform reference like the pros. Indeed, the recent duel between Google Answers and Cornell University Library staff seems a lot like an updated Desk Set, albeit in a much more scientifically measured fashion (see http://www. …

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