A few weeks ago, Library Journal published an essay I wrote highlighting systemic barriers to quality reference service. People from across the country responded and comments touched upon many aspects of library service delivery. I’m pleased the essay prompted an exchange that involved people within and (a few) outside the library community; went into detail about library services, operations and funding; and focused on the library as information resource — a function that hasn’t received much coverage in the past few years.
Here are selections from the comment stream (from the LJ site, except where noted):
|Emilie Smart (via her blog): As the head of a reference division in a public library, I cringed as I read your post. And I live in fear that one day, a patron just like you will visit my staff and have a similar experience. But one point your post brought home to me was one I’ve been concerned about for awhile and am not sure how to address.
Back in the day, when we used books (almost exclusively) to answer reference questions, we were answering more questions just like yours. The staff was familiar with that kind of question and was better armed to answer it — not because our resources were deeper then, but because the staff’s experience was. As I look over the questions we are asked today, I find very few that require the kind of knowledge of resources that yours did. In fact, I’m not sure how many of my staff would even know look for poetry explication sources to answer your question. I know that some of them would, but the younger/newer ones might not think of looking for an explication resource unless they had been lit majors. They may not even know the term to start looking for it.
This isn’t entirely a matter of poor training — if it were, I wouldn’t be as worried about it. It’s a matter of using knowledge of resources plus acquiring more knowledge over time — and that’s just something that isn’t happening like it used to. I can train staff to use databases and books, but if they rarely have the need to use them after training, they lose what they learned. (Reference work ain’t like riding a bicycle.) I can also send out a tough weekly reference question as a training tool, but even that is only putting a tiny band-aid on an ever-growing sore. If our reference staffs don’t get constant reinforcement and regular challenges (the kind that can only be had by assisting patrons like you on a regular basis), they won’t grow into knowledgeable critical thinkers, and reference service will slowly atrophy into the the kind of service described in your post — a source of pleasant conversation and general information.
|Jean: Ms. Smart – thanks so much for your consideration of my essay. Your points are so well taken. I appreciate how out-of-the-ordinary the type of service I’m seeking is for the libraries in my area. Library work today strikes me as very challenging, particularly in the smaller public libraries that are staffed by a handful of individuals who must do everything from turning off the alarm systems in the morning to [name all traditional library services here], managing meeting rooms, programming, promotion, updating the website, and in the case of some directors also managing the facilities. There’s only so much that can be done given the way these libraries are currently conceived, structured and funded.|
|SJ: When libraries limit access to resources based on residing in a specific town or affiliation with a specific college, it is not because of “library culture and organization” rather it is due to the restrictions put on by the funders of these libraries. City taxes for example support local public libraries and the city sets the policy of who then is entitled to use the local services. Colleges are funded by districts or state governments and the these funding entities set who is entitled to free access. Let’s look at another example from the college sphere – tuition. If you live out of the district or state, you will pay a higher rate to take classes at those institutions. Likewise, a comparable example at the local level to public libraries is public schools. If you live in one city, you can’t send your children to public school in another.|
|Jean: Hi SJ – I understand the library ecosystem reasonably well, and I’m suggesting we reconsider it. In my view, it’s an issue of vital national importance. The majority of funding mechanisms, jurisdiction, governance etc. were established at a time when information was scarce, people were significantly less educated and mobile. And of course we had no data technology. Particularly over the past 40 years, user needs have become more diverse and sophisticated, and libraries face competition from a range of for-profit and non-profit organizations. How can we expect them to evolve rapidly enough to stay viable if we place so many restrictions on them?|
|Karen: I have had this experience, too, esp when travelling. My husband and I are staying in a hotel, eating at local restaurants, visiting local museums, and are told we can’t use the library (to check our email via internet) because we’re not local residents (but we’re paying the onerous hotel tax). This has happened in Philly and other towns up & down the east coast. Whereas in Monterey, CA, where I used to work, we let everyone have 30 mins on the computer twice/day. It’s a big tourist town, so internet use at the library is just another aspect of being friendly to tourists. No, Monterey is not a wealthy library system–like many places in CA, it’s in trouble.|
|Jean: Hi Karen – experiences like the ones you and I have described are the reason I’ve said our national library funding models are unsustainable. Chances are residents in the communities you’ve vacationed in also experience barriers and friction, as I do in my home area. What a downward spiral. Because we’re still using funding, organizational and service models that limit service levels, people like us stop thinking of libraries as resources and find alternatives. As library services become less useful and relevant for us (and because our home budgets are as tight as our municipal ones), we find it harder to support libraries at budget time. And the pattern repeats the next year. We need to break this pattern – and FAST. I believe we can do it with our existing human, material and capital resources … and would love to get a national dialogue going about it.|
|Nicolette: I am truly sorry for the experience that you had. I do believe that some of the experiences that you cite are functions of budgetary shortfalls, which we as a profession are trying to learn to address gracefully. The barrages of questions about your affiliation may fall into this category. We are advised as a profession, in order to justify funding, resource purchases, and, sometimes, our continued existence, to attempt to get information on the patrons we are serving, since, in most cases today, any purchase rules out some other potential purchase. Unfortunately, if a resource we are purchasing is primarily used by people outside our funding population, those dollars may need to be reallocated to a resource that might serve our core group of patrons better.|
|Jean: Hi Nicolette – I know there are many restrictions placed on you and other library staff, which is why I ended my essay with the conclusion “it’s more than the system can provide”. The thrust of my advocacy is to disrupt the narrative about library funding and value. It’s true that funding levels are insufficient to support our existing library systems, however my argument is that those systems (which worked so well for half a century) are now woefully inefficient and often incapable of providing high-quality information service. What I call for is discussion about how we can use our resources to provide more service more effectively. We have the talent, money and technology to do it. All we need to begin is a change in perspective.|
|Tricia: I wish someone could have referred you to Gale’s Literature Resource Center. If you had come to my library, I wouldn’t have given up until you left with what you came for. Good, solid literary criticism is one of the hardest things to find, and frankly I was surpised to find it in LRC after you said it was unavailable in Lit Crit Online.|
|Jean: Hi Trish – guess what? My consortia just added this resource in December. It wasn’t available to me or the people who tried to help me at the time I made my inquiry. What I also figured out based on the feedback here (and the nudge to look harder) is that the database web pages at most of the public libraries in my area aren’t up to date – so I’m going to bypass them from now on and go directly to the consortia page. There may have been more resources available to me than I (or perhaps also folks working in the libraries) perceived at the time.
|SusanE: … I am an academic librarian, and I will echo that when I worked at a large, state university, I would often ask if the patron was a student or not. It’s not because I didn’t want to help our public patrons, but knowing whether they were working on an assignment as a student or simply seeking information would change how I conducted the reference interview. … If you were a student working on an assignment, I would have shown you how to use our databases, sat down with you and provided some preliminary searches for the information. Ultimately, though, I feel that it is up to the student to find and disseminate the information they need. For public patrons, I would most likely do most of the searching myself, and would leave less of the dissemination of the information to them. Basically, I feel like it is my responsibility and goal to help the student learn how to find information on their own and my responsibility to find it for the public patron.|
|Jean: SusanE: Not sure how representative I am of the non-student users you support, but can share that even though the need for a specific piece of info brings me to the library, I seek the learning experience in most cases (though not all). Sometimes I just want the fish and don’t want to be taught to fish, but most often it’s the latter. I see it as my responsibility to let the library staff know what level of service I’m looking for and try to communicate that as part of my inquiry.
|Marcie: I realize that by saying “I found your answer on the Internet,” I am not helping my own cause in keeping public libraries open and funded. The “other side” so to speak can always say, “But isn’t everything on Google? Why do we need librarians?” But my response would be, “Sometimes people need a little assistance in searching the Internet. Google seems so simple and intuitive, but the results may not be quite what a person is expecting. And you can’t always find magazine and newspaper articles for free, like you often can with subscription databases.” (Although I’ve been trying to refrain from such library language and not call them “databases.”) I think this may be what happened to you with your Dylan Thomas poem. I’m sure you could have searched Google yourself–and probably found the right level of criticism–but you wanted a little assistance with your search. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the librarian was ill-equipped to help.|
|Jean: Marcie – Thanks for weighing in again, I just love having conversations like these about contemporary information needs and the enormous value librarians can deliver. I tried Google first, using a variety of search terms, and stumbled upon 3 types of unsatisfactory sources: loads of reprints of the poem itself, countless advertisements to purchase a term paper and a few articles written by poorly identified sources describing what they think the poem is about. That’s when I turned to libraries – and how I would have loved expert help from someone like you who could share a search strategy or tactic to help me mine info on the open web. And speaking of open web, I’ve recently argued that libraries and librarians are doing themselves a disservice by limiting their scope to resources within their own institutions or consortia. Here’s a link to some specific ideas I’ve shared about broad unmet needs librarians are uniquely suited to fill: (http://www.radicalpatron.com/category/participatory-librarianship/).|
|Erika: As an academic librarian, I feel the need to explain what may be going on w/ the librarians you speak to. When a patron comes to the desk, if it isn’t clear, I’ll ask them whether they’re a Univ. patron or not (in more politic terms than that)–not b/c I want to censure or shame them for coming in, but because that affects the resources I can offer them. It’s not a problem to show them the things we subscribe to, but if they’re not a Univ. staff/student/faculty, then I can’t offer to get something through ILL for them. However, other universities have different policies. We’re a state institution, so we can allow anyone to walk into one of our libraries and use our online resources. This isn’t without its problem–the database vendors *hate* this, and are always trying to get us to limit access. B/c we get public funding, we have a leg to stand on. But a private college/univ. may not be able to allow that sort of access, even though they may want to.|
|Jean: Hi Erika – I worked part-time at an academic library from 2002-2005 and understand some of the limitations. I’ve also done loads of backoffice volunteer work for public libraries and that has also helped me interpret my experiences. I’d argue that our existing library governance and management systems are hurting patrons and libraries themselves. A far better approach, I think, are more open systems like the “OneCard” program pioneered by the Whatcom County Library System in Washington State that provides seamless access to area academic and public libraries. They describe it as an initiative “spearheaded by Whatcom Libraries Collaborate, a group of library directors and deans dedicated to expanding library access for better stewardship of resources and greater community impact.” I’d love to think about how fruitful my reference experiences might be if I could easily leverage the resources of the 26 libraries in my immediate area.|