If you distill it down to its essentials, what is it that an academic librarian does? The whole thing, wrapped up in one simple concept? It’s certainly a mission that plays out in all kinds of different ways, but essentially, academic librarians provide tools that allow rest of the academic community can get on with the business of learning, teaching, and creating knowledge. We stand at the ready to provide faculty with the journals they need to keep up with their discipline; we collect the books that are the backbone of scholarship. We assist in the day-to-day questions that come up when students and faculty engage in academic work. We allow them to have reliable access to proprietary databases; we also make sure everyone is aware of those databases and how to use them. That’s it: academic support. We provide the infrastructure so that the learning can happen, voices can be heard, paradigms can be shifted.
The future of reference service is not behind a desk. Truly radical reference is coming out from behind that desk and bringing that crucial resource of answers into real life, into that space between having a question and the topic shifting over to something else, into the space between half-way done and handed in. Radical reference is not about waiting for the question. It’s not about simply being as good as we are and being the only ones who know it. It’s about handing out those answers where they’re needed. It’s about being there with help at the point of need, not under the “info” sign. It’s about being a part of the process rather than an appendage that might be useful if it occurred to you to put it to use.
Librarians always do their best work when they have a chance to understand the information needs of the person they’re trying to help. You can’t very well give the best answer to someone who hasn’t figured out her questions yet. Entering a classroom to explain how best to use JSTOR isn’t giving anyone the best of anything; the librarian isn’t certain she’s giving the sort of instructions that are going to be useful, and the student never gets a chance to vocalize what it is he actually wants. We end up looking boring and they end up bored. This is not the best display of our skills.
So what is? What does radical reference look like? In an ideal world, every university instructor teaches with a librarian in the room. When a student proposes an essay topic, a librarian looks over the instructor’s shoulder and says, “Actually, we can support that topic. We’ve recently acquired a great new database that covers African history very well.” Or “Yes, we can get access to those sources, but only through interlibrary loan. Do you have that kind of time for this assignment?” When students hit a wall because they can’t find something they need, or they think something doesn’t exist at all and considers changing topics because of it, that’s where librarians need to be. Radical reference is providing answers well before the question arrives at the desk, being part and parcel of the learning process and providing real assistance, not just to the people with phds or the people who have learned how to walk up to the reference desk. To everyone. Radical reference is about answering questions as they emerge, where they emerge.
How can we accomplish this? Instructors are unlikely to want us sitting in on all of their classes, looking over the assignments and offering advice regularly. And what librarian has the time to do all this, not just for one class, but for all of the classes in her subject area(s)?
This is where technology can help us. So many of the tools we have to offer are becoming digital; there’s a sense that we are becoming increasingly cut off from each other and from the idea of a permanent, stable (paper) collection. But internet technology is not a thing unto itself. The idea of “web” technology is to connect us to information and to each other. We need to build ourselves into a system that allows us to physically enter a classroom to speak, and also to digitally enter a classroom through the learning management software, through virtual reference, through audio and video. To provide the kind of support we offer when someone they wander into our offices with a stack of questions to fire at us, we need alternative ways of entering into the discussion. We can’t keep replicating traditional reference service; we need to radicalize it.