Gives Reference Librarians the Edge over Computers
by Terence K. Huwe
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
heartentertainment 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
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 processturning a question
on its head to deconstruct its meaningevery 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
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.dlib.org/dlib/june03/kenney/06kenney.html).
A Matter of 'Parsing Text'
As a profession, we've always held varied viewpoints
on the proper role of reference and its value points.
Indeed, attempts to define reference often inspire more
debate than consensus. But regardless of what type of
strategy we may employ, I believe that reference is
at the top of the value chain in our professional practice.
Not everyone agrees with me, though. One of the university
librarians I've worked with once said, "Public service
is an unfunded mandate." Which is to say, we can't
afford it. In a private conversation, he casually
alluded to reference as a simple matter of "just parsing
text"which is to say, we can automate it.
Both of these remarks define the urge to use technological
solutions to replace human processeswithout fully
examining what might be lost. This dean-level administrator
had a staff of more than 100 librarians who regularly
performed reference, and they were constantly advocating
for reference service. They used (and continue to use)
reference to open doors to the faculty, to open minds,
and to keep patrons coming back.
"I REGARD THE REFERENCE INTERVIEW
AS THE ULTIMATE DIGITAL KILLER APPLICATION."
Clearly, the person-machine productivity "smackdown"
has taken new twists since the 1950s. The Pew Internet
& American Life Project reported that more than
73 percent of college students use the Internet more
than the library, while only 9 percent initiated research
at the library (see
I wonder what Katharine Hepburn's Desk Set information
professional would make of the Google generation, and
the newest verb in the English language, "Googling."
Probably, she would point out that students are using
resources all over the place, and information professionals
may be managing a high percentage of the best sites.
Parsing the Info Ecology
With the open Web and our digital libraries as key
tools, I think we hold an edge in working with the Google
generationthe reference interview. I regard the
reference interview as the ultimate digital killer application.
Moreover, everything important about this complex dialogue
can be tailored to a digital library environment. The
strategies are legion: 24/7 reference call centers,
virtual reference, e-mail-based reference, and so on.
At the core of the interchange lies a simple, but powerful,
moment in the interview. Usually it involves the reference
provider saying, in a casual sort of way, "What were
you really hoping to find?" At this point, the hunt
is on, the abstract becomes concrete, and the service
provider has an opportunity to demonstrate library skill,
which depends upon a comprehensive, thoughtful approach
to using all media, both new and historical, and both
digital and print.
This is not a matter of parsing text. It is a matter
of parsing everythingthe entire information
ecology of the modern organization. One of my favorite
examples involves a doctoral student who was one of
my key customers here at the Institute of Industrial
Relations. Her doctorate involved an analysis of how
petroleum producers promulgated employee safety standards
over time. In order to prove her hypotheses, she needed
to see company files on the subject, which were not
in libraries and not online. Using SLA contacts, I was
able to arrange for her to visit a high-security production
plant, where she was escorted by armed guards to the
records center and could read through regulations. She
also gained entrée to a very elite think tank
in order to read through supporting documents for their
consulting reports. This reference work happened during
the Web era. It made all the difference for the student,
who's now a tenured professor at the University of Massachusetts.
More recently, a sociology student, who was very well
versed in how to use the University of California's
extensive digital resources, commented that he could
never have finished his doctorate if he had not had
the help of our library staff. He's now on the faculty
at the University of Michigan. My point here is not
that librarians are "better" than computers, but rather
that librarians use all resources, including interpersonal
relationships, to maximum advantage. We're not addicted
to one media type over any other. And sometimes, things
just boil down to people connecting.
New Names and New Arenas for Reference
Getting back to that Pew study, I find considerable
room for excitement and optimism, beyond the confines
of the library I work in. Most library associations
have begun to gather "E-Metrics" (i.e., means of measuring
all of the uses of the library, not just circulation
and collection size). This makes explicit just how much
bibliographic instruction is going on. Interestingly,
University of California librarians seem to be reaching
more people, but in different forums. Systemwide, UC
Libraries engaged more than 106,375 participants in
about 7,782 instruction sessions during 20022003.
Services such as online training classes, roving reference,
and online contacts combine to make a powerful case
for the vibrancy of information counsel. Just as important,
group training is more than "reference"; it's a social
interaction wrapped around the search process, which
makes the library a more inviting place.
Group training classes and bibliographic instruction
are just the tip of the iceberg of strategy too. We've
seen a lot of buzzwords come and go, but, at least locally,
"information literacy" has really struck a nerve. Here
at UC, librarians are actively seeking to partner with
others who have a stake in teaching, and that includes
not only the faculty, but also computer trainers. Two
major faculty senate committees endorsed a resolution
that was drafted and advanced by librarians to explore
how to integrate information literacy training into
the curriculum, giving new life to the effort. Internecine
competition comes with the territory, but right now,
I see substantial opportunities for instructional librarians
to move library culture far beyond the library itself.
The new forums include the classroom (as instructors
or as guest lecturers) as well as the computer lab.
Nothing, beyond lack of will, is stopping us from asserting
our vision for offering service in unorthodox places.
Proactive outreach of this nature is vigorously endorsed
by the Special Libraries Association's Competencies
for Special Librarians of the 21st Century (http://www.sla.org/content/learn/comp2003/index.cfm).
Making Our Case
OK, so there are lots of good things in the pipeline,
there are some indicators that support our bias for
user-focused service, and we know what we're doing.
There's still one more task that we really have to do,
or it's all a waste of time. We need to make the case
for our service to decision makers. This has been consistently
true throughout the history of our profession, but the
stakes are even higher now because we have a lot of
digital competition. We need to be able to look beyond
today's setbacks, with today's vice presidents or deans,
and plan to win hearts and minds over the long term.
We also need to be ready to handle the next boss we
will be training. In law firms, government agencies,
businesses, and higher education institutions, it's
the same story. Yet here's another organic edge for
reference providers: We can go get in people's faces,
and they can't press "Control-Alt-Delete" to reboot
us. Just as Katharine Hepburn made the case and got
her manby any means necessarytoday's digital
librarians need to step out of the box to ensure that
reference service remains at the heart of the digital
Terence K. Huwe is director of
library and information resources at the Institute of
Industrial Relations, University of CaliforniaBerkeley.
He's also vice president/president-elect of the Librarians
Association of the University of California. His e-mail
address is firstname.lastname@example.org.