Radical Reference and the Future of Academic Librarianship

Radical Reference and the Future of Academic Librarianship

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.

One thought on “Radical Reference and the Future of Academic Librarianship

  1. Hi Rochelle,

    I agree that librarians in the classroom is an issue for many professors (and many librarians for that matter). But I agree that we need to be there in some manner. I am currently at lib school but before coming here I spent 3 years as a grad student at-large while working as a staff member in Access Services at Illinois State. I took 36 hrs of classes during those 3 years–some auditing and some for credit–because the university paid for it. Probably the most liberating experience of my life.

    Now I wasn’t a “librarian” but my presence as a member of the library was often a positive for the class, and never a negative. I was able to let a prof know if we had access to some resource, or how fast I could get something on e-Reserves, to give personal help to a fellow classmate, and to present a friendly face when they did come into the library, among other benefits.

    I hope to be able to do something similar when I am a librarian, but I fear that it will never approach the same level due to the issue of another “faculty member” in a prof’s class.

    I often encouraged my fellow library mates–staff and faculty–to get back into the classroom and even convinced a small handfull. Here is a short excerpt from an article, “Education for a Lifetime,” that I had in our library newsletter: “I heartily encourage everyone to consider a return to scholarship and learning. Working at an academic institution requires engaging with students and faculty; taking classes is one of the best methods to further that engagement. Also, it is a great way to further Milner’s mission, and to show the academic community that the library is composed of wonderful people. Anyone with questions regarding ‘returning’ to school should feel free to talk to me.”

    I simply do not understand how many librarians can think that they know what is going on in their institutions by sitting in the library or the random committee meeting somewhere outside the library. That isn’t where the happenings are happening people.

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