Searcher The Millennium Issue Volume 8, Number 1 • January 2000

Who Do We Think We Are?
Mary-Ellen Mort — Jobstar

When you’re standing on the cusp of a new century, you look forward and you look back. A century ago seems far away, but the connections are still there — connections within our own lives. When my grandmother was a child in 1910, in an isolated company mining town in Appalachia, the concept of “information” had little meaning. Her little town, Six Mile Run, had fewer information resources than a dentist’s waiting room: the Bible, hymnals in the church, a few books at the schoolhouse, the Sears-Roebuck catalog, the Farmer’s Almanac, and perhaps a newspaper brought in from Pittsburgh. A century later her granddaughter, her namesake, is flooded with information, data delivered by devices few of us could have imagined even 20 years ago, and earns her living as a librarian and Web developer.

I suspect that few of my generation have known the respect accorded to the barely trained teacher or the town minister in Six Mile Run. They were looked up to, not because of their information collections or skills, but because they had “learning.” When information and learning are scarce, the few who possess it have power and influence in the community. Twenty years ago when I first began working as a librarian, there was still a sense, shared among those in the library and the outside community, that we were — by virtue of our education and our information skills — occupying a leadership role for public information and opinion. We were acknowledged as guides, teachers, “educated folk,” and, from time to time, our patrons would defer to our greater knowledge and expertise. There were moments early in my career when I would sense a sort of respect for me as a representative of the archetype “lady librarian.”

Don’t get me wrong — this wasn’t a steady rush, more like a flicker here and there. But as a librarian I did sometimes sense a bit of prestige attached to my job. Later in my career, as I learned to maneuver through complicated online tools, sometimes producing magical results to the wonder and amazement of patrons and non-searching staff, I too felt a kind of thrill that I had become a living interface between technology and human knowledge. Access to those systems was exorbitant in price and limited to a few elite searchers on the general library staff. I was a gatekeeper, and in that, I felt connected to the role I might have played in my grandmother’s town in an earlier era.

As end-user tools began to come forward in the mid-’80s and the gates went down, so did the gatekeepers. We librarians were chagrined to find that our users often preferred interacting with those tools to interacting with us. We knew they weren’t getting our skilled and sometimes magical results but, to quote a phrase that would resonate for the next 15 years: “They seem to be getting enough without our help.” Looking back, I ask myself if our growing feeling of being on the margins and the continuing preoccupation with our professional image did not reflect a kind of mourning for the loss of our historical role as “central mediator” or gatekeeper. Perhaps we grieved over the disappearance of our last connection with the power, influence, and even minor prestige of being the most educated person in a very small town.

Us or Them
The Internet and the World Wide Web have driven a stake into the heart of that gatekeeper role. The loss continues to resonate. Throughout my life as a librarian, the profession has been obsessed with defining professionalism. Twenty years later, with little to show in terms of changes and tired of going in circles, we’ve boiled it down to debating a single word. Shall we continue to call ourselves librarians? Pick one: yes, no, maybe. No matter what we decide, if indeed we decide at all, the real question remains, “What do we bring to the party?” Because the party is happening with or without us.

Perhaps it’s a blessing that few practitioners read the professional literature. Down here on the ground, things are changing, changing fast, and changing for the better. At the core of the gatekeeper concept was the idea that we knew better than those we served. For generations, we now seemed to realize, we had thought in terms of us serving them. And now we were all in the same soup. As librarians struggled to learn, making valiant strides in hooking up and logging on, in configuring and networking, in creating our own Web sites and distributed information systems, our users kept pace with us. Many surpassed us. We realized that we were no longer a gate but one open door among many open doors. It has been my impression that, in large part, we information professionals have really begun to see that there is no “them” and “us.” There is only “us” and we are all doing the best we can.

The biggest change in the profession, over this century and in my lifetime, is a new sense of “partnering” with our communities, our clients, and each other. We now live in an information economy not based on scarcity, but rather on glut and noise. The missing element is meaning and the new emphasis on mutual learning. But though this change has already begun and is deepening, I wonder how conscious we are of how our role has evolved and changed. The old role, while stereotyped and restrictive, was familiar and, in many ways, pleasant. We never had enough — money or resources — but we ourselves were central to the transaction — even if our centrality, for the last 15 years, has been primarily in our own minds.

When I hear, as we all have, that we must “reinvent ourselves,” I look around and see that in many ways we already have. In small actions we are reinventing ourselves every day. It’s the awareness of the reinventing that takes time. We can’t know what those ways are until we shift our vision a little and get a new kind of language to describe what’s happening. Before we construct any grand theories about best practice and who we’ll be once we have morphed, let’s look at two “little” moments from real life.

Defining Success
A woman phones the general reference desk of a small city library asking for “the latest information on treatments for fibromyalgia.” One of her relatives has just been diagnosed and she wants to send him some information.

Elaine, working the desk alone, feels a sense of panic. These thoughts run through her mind at the speed of light: “I am not a specialist.… I haven’t done a Medline search in a long time.... Could the patron make any sense of a Medline search? I wonder if our neurology textbook is current? Could the patron make sense of the textbook? Who is the patron — this woman or her relative? How do you spell fibromyalgia? It IS neurology, isn’t it? How long will this take me? Can I afford to spend all that time? Where do I begin?”

Her next thoughts offer an easy way out: “I’ll just tell the patron to come in and then whoever is here can help her sort through all this. That fits with policy and practice, that’s what the collection is for, that’s what the library is for. Or I could refer her to a medical library, though I’m not sure they’d have the time to help her.”

Then Elaine remembers that she has worked with this patron many times in the past. This woman is about 75 years old and a regular customer of the library, especially on the telephone. While not interested in doing research herself, this patron serves as an unofficial librarian to her own circle of family and friends. She connects with this circle by providing them with the information they need — almost always from information gathered by a similar phone call to the reference desk.

Constraining her own anxiety about medical research, Elaine says, “OK, I’ll see what I can find and call you back.” She goes to The Librarians’ Index to the Internet [], selects “Diseases,” a subcategory of “Health,” and finds “Fibromyalgia” as a heading. Two major sites are listed and annotated. Checking both, she prints out the top page from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia — Ask NOAH site [], and two other files: “A Patient’s Frequently Asked Questions about Fibromyalgia” and “A Physician’s Guide to Fibromyalgia Syndrome.” Both are readable, current, and good beginning points for asking more specific questions and searching for more specific answers.

Elaine calls the patron back and says, “I have some current material from the Web on fibromyalgia. I’d like to mail it to you and then you can let me know if you want more specific information. If you don’t have a connection to the Internet, I’d be happy to get you started here at the library and help you explore the topic.” When she checks back with the patron a week later, she hears, “That was exactly what I needed. I sent it to my cousin. Thanks for getting it to me so quickly. I’m sure it will help him figure out what to do next.”

I listened to Elaine’s story and said, “That sounds to me like a job well done.”

“Was it?” she said, suddenly hesitant. “It was so easy that I’m not sure that I did a good job.”

“Ah,” I laughed, “so you think it only counts when it hurts? Which do you think your patron preferred: Coming into the library and spending hours with you? Reading through a pile of photocopies from medical texts or consumer health journals? Waiting for an interlibrary loan of an appropriate title? Reading through a Medline search? Having a phone number for a Fibromyalgia Association? The Fibromyalgia Association has already done much of that work — far better than you could in the time available to you!”

“You’re right,” she said. “But I still have a feeling I should have done all the things you mentioned. It feels, and I wonder where this feeling comes from, that unless I do ALL of the above, I haven’t done a professional job. I’m not sure that what I did ‘measured up.’”

I continued, “But when you told me the story there was pride in your voice. You were proud that even though this request made you anxious and there were easy ways to avoid the question, you went ahead and provided great information that met your patron’s immediate need. And you did satisfy the patron. She said so! Could it be that your uncertainty isn’t about the patron — who is delighted — but about your own sense of yourself? Even while you are helping patrons, are you looking over your shoulder and trying to please someone else? Who do you want to really please?”

Elaine laughed. “Maybe what I wanted was to tell another librarian, someone I trusted, about this transaction. Maybe I wanted permission from a colleague that this interaction (and now that I think of it, I DID do a fine job) WAS service. I feel as if there is an invisible standard that I have never understood. The standard says, ‘Real information is hard to find, takes hours to assemble, and requires more expertise, more collection, more resources than I ever have.’ And you know, when you think of it that way, I am failing every day, but I can always blame it on my lack of a resource. Funny, now that you mention it, but maybe my feeling of success was so unfamiliar that I had to turn it into a failure? I’m pretty good at explaining failure.

“And you know what?” she added, obviously on a roll, “there have been so many times in my own life when all I wanted was a place to begin. Some information that could get me started, get me calmed down, let me think about what to ask next. Maybe I have done a good job after all. Maybe this is my job — moving people one step forward and letting them come back and ask for more, if they need it?”

Is There a Doctor in the House?
It’s Saturday, 3 PM, and every one of the 20 Internet terminals at a large county central library is occupied by motionless patrons, heads down, shoulders hunched over the monitor. “They look like an Olympic team of synchronized typists,” Jackie thinks to herself. She notices one man waving his hand in the air and looking in her direction. “How unfortunate,” she thinks, “that we have to resort to waving. But the patron and I both know that if he leaves his seat for even a moment, he will have — according to the rules of war — abandoned his terminal.”

Jackie walks over to the gesturing patron. He tells her he’s been trying for the last 25 minutes to set something up in his HotMail account but nothing he’s tried has worked and now he can’t access his account at all. Jackie looks at the screen and skims through the “Help” file. Not surprisingly, this problem isn’t addressed. She looks at her patron, who’s now hovering behind her. “I’ve seen that look before,” she thinks. “It’s how I felt the time I lost my Excel file after 5 hours of work. It’s how I felt when I had to install new printer drivers and the manual was more confused than me.

“But,” Jackie reasons,  “I’m not sure I’m going to figure this out either. I could look for a Dummies book on e-mail; maybe this issue is covered. I could ask another librarian or call the tech staff if I can find them. I could tell the patron to send an e-mail to the HotMail help center ... but wait, he hasn’t GOT e-mail at this point.” Suddenly, she feels a new resolve. She stands up and looks around her at the Olympic typing team.

“Does anyone here have a HotMail account?” she asks in her loudest, modulated voice. Startled heads tip up. “I do,” says a teenager at the end of the second row. Jackie walks over to her. “Would you be willing to see if you can help the gentleman over there? I’ll sit at your terminal until you come back and hold your place.” Three minutes later, the teenager returns with a look of success and accomplishment, and heads lift up to watch her pass. She’s about a foot taller than before. Jackie looks over at the Hot Mail Man and he raises both arms in a touchdown signal.

What’s Perfection Got to Do with It?
It’s time to start paying attention to stories like these, mundane as they are. It’s time to look at what we’re doing from moment to moment and how we feel about it. What is service? What is success? Who sits in judgment? Do we base our daily actions on surveys, studies, procedure manuals? Do we wait for permission? Or do we learn to stand firm in our own experience, judgment, and authority to make decisions? Though we’ve lost the automatic respect of the world for the “lady librarian,” we’re often reluctant even to respect ourselves. We’re not sure we can trust our own, real-life information actions. There’s a sense that we’re waiting for validation to come from outside: from our institutions, our clients, our financial status. We wait a very long time for someone to tell us who we are. And while we wait our position seems to erode! Perhaps it is time to try a new approach and grant ourselves professional authority and with it, permission to be a skilled and experienced partner to those we serve, rather than continuing to take on a superhuman responsibility for a job we simply cannot do — namely, completely answering any question the human mind can devise on an hourly basis.

In those two real-life stories, the librarians trusted their experience and knowledge about the individual patron, the situation, the level of service. Both librarians were aware of a range of possible responses: Elaine knew that she could ask the patron to come into the library and get assistance, of whatever kind; Jackie could have shrugged her shoulders and said, “This isn’t my job. This isn’t my expertise.” And I would suggest, even though Jackie didn’t express any ambivalence about her decision, there are library and staff cultures that would have criticized her for involving another patron in the transaction. Both stories show that at the service point, we all take risks, no matter how often we are told that as a profession we are “risk-adverse.” I think we take risks every day, but we are caught in a massive conflict in our internal operating instructions as we evolve from information gatekeepers to information partners.

The evolution has begun. We just need to be able to see it.

In Elaine’s story the real issue is perfection, some unattainable and unexamined standard that she has never been able to live up to. While aware of her vulnerability to criticism from an unsympathetic colleague or supervisor, she also knows what her patron needs right now and what she can do right now. Elaine is caught in a double-bind: She can struggle to please internal (and perhaps external) notions of perfection, or she can help the patron by supplying some, not all, of the relevant information immediately. As we move from an information economy based on scarcity to an information economy based on glut and noise, we’re all finding ourselves in Elaine’s situation: caught between an unreal idea of “the job we should do” and the daily, less perfect, helping actions that move the patron one step forward at a time. When this double-bind is unconscious, it provokes tremendous anxiety and perhaps paranoia. We’re damned if we do give maximum service — because we’re not staffed for it and because often the patron doesn’t want it, preferring a little help now to beautiful help at some unspecified date. We’re damned if we don’t give maximum service — because then we carry around a pervasive sense of failing to live up to our own standards.

One way to resolve the conflict between perfection and practice is to shut down. We’ve all heard about librarians (never ourselves) who are just killing time until retirement. Another way out is “Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, but never jam today.” If you recall, Alice in Wonderland says, “It must come sometimes to ‘jam to-day.’” “No it can’t,” replies the Queen, “It’s jam every other day: to-day isn’t any other day, you know.”  The Jam Tomorrow way out of the conflict comes out as, “If I helped you, as I have been trained to help you and have sometimes helped others in the past, I would have to check through all these strategies and resources to get you absolutely everything you need. But since there’s no way I can make that kind of investment, all I can do is look in the OPAC and point you to the shelf.”

I see the conflict between perfection and practice as the basic barrier to offering interactive information services online, to taking our services to the client rather than having the client come to us and play by our rules — rules, we must admit, we don’t always understand ourselves. Anne Lipow has coined the phrase “In Your Face Reference” [1] to describe this shift towards the client’s time and place and need: “Library reference service will thrive only if it is as convenient to the remote user as a search engine; only if it is so impossible to ignore — so ‘in your face’ — that not to use the service is an active choice.” The technology, even something as primitive as e-mail reference service, is in place and ready to be used. But if we can’t measure up to an inflated and anxious standard of perfection in the slower pace of in-person and telephone transactions, how on earth can we offer anything approaching “real-time” service on the Web? We’re talking major shut down unless we can bring this issue to consciousness and try to resolve it.

What can we use as our guide in trying to resolve this double-bind? Both stories give the clue. Elaine understands that her patron needs a quick, reliable, current overview of the situation — and perhaps a way to “understand more later.” Elaine has empathy for the patron, picturing herself in the same situation and asking what she would find most helpful. And, just in case her empathy is off-base, she offers “more or different help” as the patron decides. Jackie sees the look of panic on her patron’s face as he imagines his e-mail account evaporating and remembers having the same feelings when she’s wrestled with technology and lost.

Empathy is something we have always used to give good service — but often opposes concepts of “information perfection.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines empathy as: “identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.” Technology, of whatever kind, is itself so very frustrating because it has no empathy for the user. At least at the beginning of the 21st century, technology still forces the user to understand technology’s motives rather than the other way around. Who better to provide this empathy than the librarian realizing that there really is no “us” and “them”? What other profession has stepped forward to claim empathy as its way of connecting people with information? What other imperfect profession is ready to take on the challenge of imperfect humans and imperfect technology?

The irony is, we can no longer deliver either “come to me” or “in your face” information services without examining the standards of perfection in our own heads, floating about in institutions, and in our all-too-saintly presentations about “how good we are.” We are good — but good and perfect are not the same. As long as we hold ourselves to an unachievable (and often undefined) standard, we are opting out of the messy work that no one else wants — helping people get unstuck one moment at a time with the tools and expertise at hand. This is the real work that needs doing, and no one else wants to do. All around us, we are doing the messy work every day but we’re still a bit ashamed of it. We judge ourselves too harshly because we can’t see that “mess and imperfection” lie at the heart of what we do. Our value is firmly planted in our ability to see ourselves, information, and our patrons realistically and to act effectively anyway. Call me what you like — I don’t have any problems with the word “librarian” — but call me when you need some help. That’s what I’m here for.

Channeling Excellence
As my tales from the field show, Voltaire was right when he observed that “the best is the enemy of the good” — particularly if the best is always something we’ll have tomorrow ... just as soon as we figure it out. A partnership role for librarians is emerging out of the necessity to take action now, give service now. The new role will change us for the better. We are learning that whereas gatekeepers ration resources, expertise, access, and service, partners distribute them. Whereas gatekeepers dispense, partners collaborate. Gatekeepers are granted external authority; partners work to develop relationships and trust.

As we partner with the patron to meet immediate needs, what we most need now is to establish a connection that the patron can count on and access at will. How often have you called the library, any library, only to hear that your “partner,” “your librarian,” is not available? “Library staff is busy helping other patrons. Please come into the library or call back later.” How many clients in our communities surf the Web looking for skilled, immediate help — looking for us — and end up turning instead to playing “keyword roulette” at the search engine with the largest advertising budget? Why not channel our desire for excellence into creating solutions geared to our real, professional knowledge of our users’ needs and processes? Why not find the answer and find all of it — and then distribute it to our clients on the World Wide Web through our intranet or any other delivery mode at our command?

What is your expertise or the expertise of your information operations? Create tools your clients can use to help themselves. Use your empathy, your knowledge of the patron, to organize, design, and communicate in the style that connects best with your clientele. Collaborate with other experts and offer personal help to address individual needs either in person, by phone, or via e-mail. Put your excellence in your client’s face by offering as much depth and interaction as they need. And be there to partner when they need you.

Will there still be times when we take on the 100 percent, full-bore research request? Yes, but this is no longer a typical frontline activity in most public libraries. We simply must stop thinking of this extraordinary effort as our “real” job. An in-depth research request now functions as a library form of R&D, something that stretches our own expertise and skill and lets us know how far away the goalposts really stand and whether they have moved since the last time we looked. It also represents our opportunity to coalesce our expertise into a well-designed, well-maintained, “librarian-quality” metasite that adds to the cumulative wisdom of the Web and to the eternal credit of our profession.

This is where specialization, focus, and teamwork come in: Am I, as a business librarian, building my skill set and customer value by tracking down genealogical arcana? Should an art librarian have to study quotation sources on my dime? The more depth we bring to the party, the more effective (and excellent) partners we will be. We can’t expect to partner with all clients and all questions and deliver the kind of service needed. We need to develop products containing our expertise, in addition to partnering one to one.

What may look like “dumbed down” reference to our gatekeeper minds is instead a way of distributing ourselves most appropriately at the point of need, engaging as often as needed. Is it still half a loaf if you can have all the loaves you like? Take two and call us in the morning. Or better yet, call us at 2 in the morning when you get a sudden urge to track down your ancestral roots, start a business, figure out what to do with all those tiny little apricots on your lawn, find a job, or have it out with your accountant. My grandmother would be amazed and proud.

1. Lipow, Anne Grodzins, “‘In Your Face’ Reference Service,” Library Journal, August 1998, p. 52.

The author would like to thank all the librarians, public and otherwise, who have shared their stories in hallways, in coffee shops, over mixed drinks. Our stories need to be told.

Mary-Ellen Mort is a librarian and Web developer in Oakland, California, and is the creator of JobStar: California Job Search Guide (, a public library sponsored Web site for job search and career information that serves 17,000 daily visitors. JobStar was awarded the American Library Association’s Gale Award for Excellence in Reference and Adult Services; Mary-Ellen was the recipient of MCI’s Cybrarian of the Year Award in 1998.
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