Radicalizing Reference: Theory and Practice

I’ve written previously about rethinking traditional reference in academic librarianship, and I suggested it was time for a complete radicalization of our notions of reference. We can’t stand behind the desk anymore; increasingly, no one is turning to us there. Reference stats at university libraries are universally down. This is one of the hardest things for reference librarians to swallow; there is so much knowledge and experience sitting there behind those desks, and no one is stopping to appreciate it. Reference librarians are like those last few literate monks watching the barbarians sack Rome and proceed to build up a culture that didn’t have a place about all those manuscripts, all that learning, the medicine, the theory, the literature. I imagine them in their little libraries, clutching the books and gazing over the hoards, all naked and dancing in the firelight, none of them literate, none of them encouraging their children to read. Nothing I can do will make you care about these things, they must have thought, with that sinking feeling that no one would care for a long, long time.

But it doesn’t need to be this way, of course. In fact, there hasn’t really been a golden age for librarians yet. Our stronghold as keepers of information has been built entirely on the complexity of the thing; we were the only ones who knew how to find anything, of course everyone was reliant on us. But we don’t live in a world where someone types your memos for you, answers your phone, does your photocopying. What we’re facing is an increasingly information literate world; or at least, one that believes itself more information literate. People have empowering tools at their disposal and our libraries are rarely closed-stack anymore. We are no longer the gatekeepers of knowledge; the world may freely wander in and pick and choose from our wares.

So what are some alternatives? There is something very safe and important about the reference desk itself; when you walk into the Gap, you want to know that if you need something, you can go and find someone who will help you. You want to know not just that people are there, but where you’re likely to find them. Unless we’re going to start littering the stacks with staff wearing happy “I work here” buttons, we’re probably going to need one central place where people can go for help.

But that’s at the peak of frustration. Our system is set up so that you can get help after you’ve basically gone through dozens of research steps on your own and found nothing helpful. You need to completely frustrate yourself into a frenzy before you turn for help. We have set up a system where students need to reach a boiling point before we know the water’s on.

So how do we fix this? There are some practical and creative ideas floating around, not all of them tried and tested. But breaking out of the box of both reference and library instruction is difficult, so all new ideas add more fuel to this fire.

Wandering reference. Wireless, handheld devices are getting more and more ubiquitous; what if we send reference librarians out in the wilds (so to speak), equipped with digital equipment to connect them with the resources they need to properly answer questions. I’ve never been entirely sold on this idea. As I said, how are students going to find one of these people if they needed help? But let’s assume that we have limitless staff and someone is already camped out on the reference desk to take the triage. I’ve wandered around libraries enough to have seen that look in students’ eyes, that look that says, I think maybe you can help me, but I’m not sure I want to interrupt you right now and my question is probably too lowly and dumb for you to waste your time on. This kind of service takes a particular kind of personality; wander around and see who appears to need you, and make sure they understand that you’re approachable and no question is a stupid question. This method catches students who are trying to get work done, but are starting to move toward the boiling point. There’s a question there just lurking under the surface, not quite daring to pop out.

But I think this idea has potential not actually because of the mobility of the reference librarian, but because of the concept of connecting a single reference librarian digitally to her resources. What are the #1 top resources in an academic library? Why, the staff, of course. Ages ago, Ann Althouse hit the nail on the head about the possibilities of putting real life people in direct connection with things digital while out in public. If one person is asked a question, why shouldn’t the answer come from a chorus?

What’s wrong with students pooling their expertise on the fly? The student doing the speaking is not rendered passive. He or she will still have to read the messages quickly and integrate them with existing knowledge. It could be lively and energizing. The students who aren’t chosen to speak will have some way to express themselves, which might help them listen to the student who is speaking, and a spirit of community and collaboration might take hold.

Here Prof. Althouse is talking about allowing students to help each other when there is a single speaker asked to engage in Socratic dialogue; why shouldn’t we pool our resources for librarians the same way? Imagine the power of that reference librarian; wandering in the wilds of the stacks, the student lounges, the residences, various study spaces. Seeking out the information needy and providing for them in computer labs. Cafeterias. And all along a crack team of expert subject librarians is at her beck and call, prepared to find an answer, make a suggestion, point out new resources. Print out an article to the nearest network printer on campus to spread the joy around even outside the walls of the library.

Is that radical? Well, it’s mobile, at least.

Virtual Reference is both out there in a new location, but also very traditional. Have a question? Ask us. The problem with virtual reference (well, one of the problems) is that the idea that the reference desk is in the library is translated onto the web; virtual reference links are always sitting exclusively on the library website, and often buried a few links in. Why not offer virtual reference links as a service to other units in the university? Put them on course pages. Attach the link to assignments and tutorials. Fight for a link on residence web pages. Pick an IM client and install it on the lab computers. Sink the link within the catalogue itself; rather than just getting a “no records found” message, why not also link to v-ref as a life raft?

Course Management Software is sneaking into more and more classrooms at universities. These systems are all different and contain many different modules, but most of them contain something like message boards and live chats. Eventually they will doubtless also contain blogging systems and wikis. If students are discussing their essay topics or doing collaborative coursework online, why not provide immediate assistance where it’s needed, where it’s going on? Librarians are used to waltzing into the classroom to bring resources to students; why not start waltzing into the courseware? Answer those questions as they’re forming rather than as they’re exploding.

Since courseware is still in its infancy, lobby the big boys of CMS to write librarians into the system as administrators. Give us our own usernames, let us scan through the messageboards, wikis, blogs, and assignments and offer help where we can. Let us connect directly with students where they need us, not just when they hit the wall of despair. Let subject librarians provide the same level of assistance to undergrads as they do to grad students and faculty. Let librarians sit in the corner of the CMS, ready to speak up when someone needs something and doesn’t know where to find it, or that it exists at all. Where students express their concerns, their hopes, their topics, let the librarians in to comment and help. Link to databases, talk up print resources. Be a resource, a named face, another helpful hand in the great big faceless university.

Librarians have so much more to offer the academic community than most people seem to realize. The more we get out from behind the desk, the more radical reference service we provide, the more people will come to realize it.

1 thought on “Radicalizing Reference: Theory and Practice”

  1. Excellent ideas! I particularly like putting a link to VR on the catalog “not found” response. But I also applaud the general “get out from behind the desk” theme. It’s important in public libraries as well as academic. It’s friendly, less intimidating, more specific to the need.

    I think of it as proactive reference, and have advocated it for many years, though “in the room.” To do it farther afield with electronic appurtenances would be fabulous.

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