Getting Past the “Expert” Paradigm

I’m cleaning out the drafts folder for this blog, and I found this one:

There are a lot of topics about which YOU know more that ME (more than I?  Grammar may be one of them).

Two librarians in the dark.

there are two experts in the reference transaction

It’s like some sort of cryptic librarian riddle.  Maybe a joke:

Two librarians in the dark.  One turns to the other and says…

– “How’d we get inside this dog”?

-“I guess I should have said AND lightbulbs”

-“Isn’t the library supposed to be a *glowing* organism?”

Clifford Maust In Scottdale, Pennsylvania

I’m not exactly sure what I was going to try to get at with that draft, but I think it was probably something about how thinking of librarians as experts is not a good place to try to do reference from.

The truth of the matter is, it’s the ~terrifying unknown~ that librarians often confront in true reference transactions**, rather than a tapping of their professional expertise.  We may understand our collections, we may understand the organization of information and the orders of knowledge, but each patron throws a new curve ball.

Better to approach the reference transaction from a place of learning and collaboration.  The librarian is learning more about the patron’s information need, and collaborating on the construction of the answer.  A “collaborating” model lets the librarian approach the patron with humility, which is helpful both in dealing with patrons who are not very confident and in dealing with patrons who know everything – it removes the source of conflict.

Cornell Varsity, Pokpsie 61711

**other types of transactions at the reference desk include the less terrifying, “where is the bathroom?” and “can I use the computer?”

Will Manley’s Magic Bullet

Tumblarians were passing around this quote the other day:

“There are no short cuts to [Readers’ Advisory] work. You have to read, and you have to love books. Reviews and read-alike gimmicks only take you so far. I know it’s old fashioned, but readers’ advisors must be readers.” -Will Manley

The quote comes from a Booklist column, at the end of which Will Manley meets you down at the crossroads with the one book that all sixth graders will love, The Westing Game.  In exchange, you have to promise to read ALL THE BOOKS, so you can tell hipster tech librarians where to shove it.  It’s a pretty good read.

I Tumblr’d back that I disagree with that quote (I’m still learning Tumblr, so that’s probably not what I did at all).

Librarian PezMy main problem, and this is obviously my own weird head canon, is that this quote conjures up this cozy world where the librarian and patrons are all holding hands and kissing their copies of Pride and Prejudice.  Where everybody likes the same books, and all the librarian has to do is read and dispense.

Readers’ Advisory is not about saying, “I read this book and I know you’ll love it!”

Readers’ Advisory is, “What books do you like?  What did you like about them?  What do you want this new book to do for you? Sometimes people who want that, like this book.  Take a look, what do you think?”

To do that, it’s more important to be able to ask and find, than it is to have personal experience.  Because frankly, it’s not about your taste.

Reviews and read-alikes aren’t gimmicks.  You need tools like reviews and read-alike sites to help open your mind to the way that other people read and think about books.  That’s the main skill of Readers’ Advisory, empathy.  You have to teach yourself Readers’ Empathy.

Reading widely does help librarians to be better readers’ advisors.  But reading about reading, and reading about books helps even more. Also, talking to people about books is wonderfully enlightening.  There’s nothing wrong with showing a patron LibraryThing, or NoveList, or any other site they’ve never heard of that can help them be their own Reader’s Advisor.  That’s part of the job too – teaching skills so that patrons can do things for themselves.

I read and I love books.  But I read and love books because that’s my joy, not because it’s my job.  My job is people.


The Westing Game is pretty awesome though.  I’ll try it with my twelve year olds.  They’re pretty tough, so I don’t know.  If it works I’ll go push a hipster into a mud puddle.

What Time Management Means to Librarians

I’m a librarian because I wanted to do social work, but I didn’t want to be a social worker. Being a librarian gives you the ability to really help people, in all sorts of interesting ways.

Sometimes this is brief. You might spend ten seconds letting someone know the cost for printing, or where the bathroom is. Sometimes your interaction can take much longer, stretching over days as you contact other organizations to, for example, find out which Pasadena high school was the one attended by a tap dancer on the Lawrence Welk Show (more specifically tap dancer Arthur Duncan, the first African American to appear regularly on a tv variety program).

The length of time spent with someone doesn’t have a direct relationship with the importance of your answer. If a patron needs to know where the bathroom is, that is an immediate need with potentially dire and smelly repercussions. The answer to “Where is the bathroom?” is very important information, and it must be provided in a timely fashion.

The attrition of staff over decades of tight budgets (in California much of this can be traced back to the passage of Prop 13 in 1978) means that libraries are short staffed, and increasingly so. Librarian time must be rationed, in order to ensure that all patrons get at least some sort of assistance. One of the libraries I work at has a loose rule for reference staff: no more than ten minutes with each patron. But many times even ten minutes is too much, when there is a line of people clamoring for attention. One of the value judgments that I am learning to make, as a new professional, is how to best spend my time. When I decide how much time to spend with patrons, how to triage, when to give up, and when to really go the extra mile, I’m making a decision about the importance of my help.

I find the importance of answering idle curiosity very hard to quantify. Many people will say “oh it’s not important, I’m just curious.” But really these questions are very central to the library vision. Libraries exist to nurture the curious. It is this sort of engagement with our world that helps create literate, dynamic, healthy communities. Sharing someone’s intellectual interest is a very good way of building a relationship. The time spent helping someone who is “just curious” is also valued differently by patrons. It is often seen as excellent customer service, or kindness, or going the extra mile. It is a way of showing a patron she is important, and it can be very validating for her.

Another difficult decision is how much help to provide to individuals with very limited skills, particularly those who are not computer-literate. I’ll admit I was shocked, when I started working in libraries, by the level of illiteracy I saw (and continue to see). These are not just patrons who are not very fast typers, or don’t know how to sort a spreadsheet. These patrons don’t know how to use a mouse. You have to say things like, “press the button on the left side of the mouse twice, this rhythm: dah-dah.” “Double-click” is too much jargon. And often these patrons come in because they need to do something to fulfill a basic need; They need to print out a lease, or a medical bill. They might need to apply for something online, e.g. unemployment or a job. Even positions that don’t require computer skills, custodian jobs, for example, now have online applications. These patrons often need someone to sit with them for the duration of what they are trying to do, and it is very time consuming.  And where else can they go?  What other organization offers free computer time, and the possibility of free help?

Kids also present a special challenge. Many kids are actually better library users than adults, at least as far as the Dewey Decimal System is concerned.  It is more common for me to be able to hand a call number to a child, say “do you know how to find this?” and have them nod and scamper off.  Adults will often sheepishly grimace, and say they have no idea.  So, its not so much that kids need more library help.  The kids I’m considering here are the free-range kids, the ones who don’t get a lot of positive attention from adults.  Some of these kids lurk in packs with no desire for contact.  But some kids will sidle up next to the ref desk and latch on, asking question after question, and often increasingly bizarre ones as they search for ways to keep your attention.  Clingy adults are one thing, and difficult enough to disengage from.  Clingy children break my heart.

So where is my time best spent?  I make that decision hundreds of times a day.  I weigh the needs of patrons against each other, not to mention against the other tasks I do that benefit them – ordering new books, weeding, making displays and book lists, planning programs, trying to stay on top of my own professional development…

I’d have to make these decisions even if libraries had better funding.  But we are so short-staffed.  Some days it feels like I’m holding both hands over a leaking dam.


The Digital Divide, Part 1 of 3: The Have Nots

Herein are some of the things I’ve been thinking about lately in regards to libraries and computers and digital literacy.  Some of this series will probably be “late pass” territory, but I’m trying to sort out what’s on my mind, and what I’ve been reading and experiencing.

In library school, we talked about the Digital Divide.  This is what I got out of our discussions:

A certain percentage of people, both here in America and in developing countries, don’t have computers or the internet, so they are left out and behind. We need to give them computers and the internet, or make sure they can have them through the library, in order for them to have the same advantages and experiences the rest of society has.

– Me, in library school

But I think maybe the best way to understand what The Digital Divide really means, is to hang out in an urban public library.  Here are some of the people I’ve encountered over the past few months:

  • A 70 year old kindergarten teacher, still working, who was told to check her pension fund online.  She navigated through most of the webform in about 20 minutes, and then called me over when it asked for an email address.  She didn’t know what to put because she didn’t have one.
  • A man who came in looking for tax forms.  When I said “I’m sorry, we don’t have them – the government is moving everything online,” he replied, “I’m an 80 year old man, I’m not going to waste time learning how to use a computer.”  (We printed out some forms for him).
  • A woman who called me over because her computer wasn’t working.  It turns out she was clicking both sides of the mouse multiple times – the computer behaved normally when I suggested she just click the left side, and not more than twice in rapid succession.
  • A couple looking for a tenant on Craigslist called me over because after they clicked a link, they didn’t know how to navigate back to the original post.
  • A man trying to reply to a Craigslist ad for someone to help put Ikea furniture together.  When he clicked the reply-to address, outlook popped up.  He didn’t understand why it wouldn’t let him email. He did have a yahoo address, which he typed into the url field when I suggested he needed to go through his email account in the browser instead.  After we got to his inbox I said “Now just cut and paste the craigslist address”  He looked at me blankly.  So I walked him through how to cut and paste.
  • A man trying to format a Word resume for a custodial position, who didn’t know how to hit backspace to get rid of an unintentional carriage return, nor how to use the line spacing feature.
  • A woman trying to print out resumes for herself and her friend, who didn’t know how to use spell check.
  • A woman who was upset because our computer rearranged her list of documents, which she had painstakingly put in alphabetical order.  I showed her how to change the folder to list view and sort by name.  We then had a very long and frustrating discussion about the difference between doc and docx.

So you can see that it’s not just “oh, let’s give them access to a computer and they’ll figure it out.”  They won’t. It takes more than a one hour reservation on a public computer to gain these skills. And as more and more essential life activities move into the digital realm, the disadvantages of being on the wrong side of the divide get more and more serious.  You need to be computer savvy to do your taxes, to get a job (even if that job will never require you to use a computer), to find housing, and to get your benefits.

So now I would say:

The digital divide is not just “oh Suzy doesn’t have a home computer so she can’t go on Facebook to socialize with her friends/children/grandchildren.”  The digital divide is “Suzy doesn’t know how to use a mouse so Suzy can’t get a job.”

– Me, a year after graduating library school

Quick Facts — Measure of America: American Human Development Project

Like trivia?  Check out:

Quick Facts — Measure of America: American Human Development Project.

Includes some really depressing ones such as:

A white baby born today in the nation’s capital can expect to live 83.1 years. An African American baby born in the same city has a life expectancy of 71 years, a dozen years less and about the same as that of the average American baby in the early 1970s.

About one-quarter of the country’s high schools educate more than 85% of the country’s Latino children. The schools that most Latino children attend are disproportionately large in size, low in resources, located in central cities, and largely confined to just seven states: California, Texas, Florida, New York, Arizona, Illinois, and New Jersey.

In no U.S. states do African Americans, Latinos, or Native Americans earn more than Asian Americans or whites.

For every $1 of net worth whites have, Latinos have 12 cents, and African Americans have 10 cents.


Racism is real and it is UGLY.


Potatoes, history, truth, and a reference.

When you’re married to an Englishman, you can always use a recipe for potatoes.

Listen to the path this one followed:

I had LA Ink on as background noise while doing homework.  I looked up because I heard “Bobcat Goldthwait” and I have a little fondness for strange funny dudes.  He was getting a tattoo of a Salt Potato.

Salt Potatoes!  Potatoes are always a win, and anything that raises blood pressure is a total flavor bonus.  Wikipedia then led me to:

A New York Times Recipe for Salt Potatoes

Canarian Wrinkled Potatoes (Papas Arrugadas)

Both recipes are at heart instructions to boil potatoes in ridiculously salty water.

Both recipes have stories which relate the food to the surroundings:

“The salt potato, an iconic central New York side dish, got its start in the late 1800s, when salt was distilled by boiling water from marshes around Syracuse, N.Y. Workers, many of them Irish, would dump potatoes in the boiling vats and then have lunch.”

“in the past the Canarians used sea-water”

I love that this is the same food, which originated in two different places and two different cultures, which uses the same natural resources with varying human mediation.

It also illustrates, in a round about way, the difficulties of tracing the origins of foods or recipes.  Food doesn’t get invented, it gets developed.  Or messed around with.  Or serendipitized (that’s not a word, but you know what I mean).   Authenticity is a pretty big concept, especially to foodies, but I’m beginning to think there is no such thing under the sun.

Today’s reference:  Check out  Food Timeline for an interesting and comprehensive take on food research.  And yes, it was developed by a librarian.

Extreme Librarian

I’m no adrenaline junkie, but I’ve done a few exciting things.  I’ve spent some time on the trapeze.   I’ve bounced through white water on a flimsy rubber raft.  One time I went skydiving (I had to take a nap afterwords, all the fear** drained the life out of me).

Libraries and Librarians are often viewed as safe and quiet.  No matter how many crazy ideas are contained therein, or how many banned books weeks are run, or how many times the federal government gives us the hairy eyeball (check out this article on libraries and the supreme court, it opens as word doc, don’t be alarmed), the stereotype of the kindly old lady reading stories to contented children will never die.

So I found something I didn’t expect from reference librarianship, it’s kind of a rush.

There is a certain kind of sheer terror which comes out of being asked to be an expert in something about which you have absolutely no clue.  Librarians know that we are there to help find answers, not to give them, but patrons don’t know that.  There must be a similar sort of fear if you are a spy in disguise, or commit identity fraud.  And then when you get away with it!   You pull it off!  You say, yes let me help you, with a certain brash confidence in your own ability, and manage to find the answer, or the resource, or to say “this requires more research, would you like me to email you with my findings?”  Or you turn it into a teaching moment and say “let’s look into this together, shall we?”  And they go away happy.  Because you know EVERYTHING and you’ve helped them.

Phew!  What an awesome job.

**For those of you who don’t know this feeling, take a look at my face below.  That sums it up.

Growing Knowledge: The Evolution of Research

Growing Knowledge: The Evolution of Research.

The British Library is putting together a special exhibition of innovative research tools and techniques … I totally want to go!

Oh well, apparently they will also be updating this page so people can also participate online.  I can be a virtual tourist I guess.

The Future of Reference

Sometimes I look at the possibilities for knowledge in this world and I have to sit down.  Thinking back to when I was a kid, we were starved by today’s standards.  I remember being about seven or eight and sitting around with my friends trying to think up bad words.  I think we came up with about four, and some of them were kind of iffy by the standard of the truly offensive.  Ditto with sex, my knowledge in childhood was this cobbled together patchwork of rumor, hearsay and bald-faced lies. These are the most obvious examples where I felt a lack of good information, but there’s also the fact that if I wanted to know how tall the president was, I would have to go through a complicated process involving books, magazines, and possibly quite a few adults.
Now I can simply type “how tall is president Obama” in my Google search box and come up with over a million possible answers.  I don’t have to go anywhere, I don’t have to interact with any hostile natives in the library, and I don’t have to shuffle through books or magazine. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a kid nowadays.  Wouldn’t you just be so worldly?  If something you didn’t know came up, you could just pretend to be texting and secretly Google it on your phone.
So if everyone knows everything, and it’s all right there, why do we need reference services?
One thing this semester’s reference class has driven home is that the success of a reference transaction is measured in more ways than just accuracy.  A reference transaction is also an opportunity for patron service, and patrons’ needs encompass elements of social interaction, convenience, and discovery as well as just a quick answer.
For a long time libraries were the only information game in town.  Now that patrons can use the internet to answer their own reference questions, we worry that patrons won’t need us at all.  Google and other search engines are superior to librarians by more than one measurement.  They are available at any time, answer ready reference very quickly, and are increasingly able to find results for more complex natural language queries.  Users don’t have to understand the difference between a subject and a keyword search, and they don’t have to deal with any sort of social interaction (including the embarrassment of ignorance or questions of a delicate nature).
So the future of reference has two possibilities.  We can try to out-Google Google.  We can become quicker and more convenient.  We can try to hammer our technology and conventions into a more intuitive and user-friendly shape.  Or we can embrace the ways that we differ.
Our strength is in our humanity.  Librarians have critical thinking skills.  We have the ability to make judgments about the quality and relevance of resources, and to make reasoned arguments for our choices.  We can see and describe the larger shape of human knowledge (rather than just presenting a list of resources).  We can choose the unpopular and the obscure, serving those who are not looking for the most frequently chosen result.  We can teach.  We’re real people, with the potential for developing warm relationships with our patrons.
The fact of the matter is that most patrons don’t ask a reference question in order to learn how to research.  The ask because they want to know something, even if they’re not sure what that is.  Librarians should not be satisfied with just being Information Service Providers, we should also strive to be Knowledge Facilitators.

Two Digital Reference Questions and an Interaction with a Librarian in a Library

I recently completed an assignment to compare reference transactions in three different media: at the physical library, via email, and through a chat service.

It was only when I set out to do this that I realized I couldn’t recall ever asking a librarian a reference question.  As a kid I loved the library, but I really enjoyed wandering around picking out my own books.  As I grew older I had the attitude that I should be smart enough to know how to do my own research.  One reason why I am grateful for this assignment (and class), is that I see there’s no shame in asking a librarian a question. 

The transaction I preferred was the email transaction.  The form was very simple; the only required fields were the question and an email address. I appreciated that it was so easy and really liked that I could ask my question whenever I wanted, from wherever I was.  My answer was written clearly.  I now have a document I can refer to, instead of having to rely on my memory as in the desk transaction.  I was given fewer resources than when I used desk reference, but was given the librarian’s name and several points of contact for follow up.  This shows the potential to develop a relationship with the librarian, allowing us to continue to work on my question.

I had high hopes for chat reference.  I anticipated that it would combine email’s ease of use with a transparent search more tailored to my specific needs.  I thought it would be a great opportunity to work closely with someone to explore online resources and develop a good search strategy.  Unfortunately my librarian, while friendly, did not keep me informed of what she was doing.  She disappeared during the search, and I was left twiddling my thumbs while she was presumably browsing the web.  The session basically took up thirty minutes of my time and presented four links, two of which I had already discovered quite quickly via Google.  At the end of the session she told me her shift was over but did offer to transfer me to another chat librarian or forward my question to the library as an email.

The desk reference transaction produced the greatest number of resources, but was somewhat unfocused.  I am kind of a shy person and felt a little overwhelmed by the reference set up.  The library was busy and there were no clear markings stating “This is the Reference Desk.”  When I finally worked up my nerve to approach a desk, the librarians were friendly and attentive.  I was referred by my initial contact to another librarian.  Both of them set aside what they were doing and gave me their full attention.  The librarian who ended up helping me walked me to the section she thought might be appropriate.  The service fell down a little bit in terms of questioning, search and follow up.  She did not try to figure out where I’d already looked, she didn’t ask me if the material was what I needed, she indicated sections of shelving which might be appropriate but didn’t tell me why or help formulate strategies, and she didn’t advise me to come back if I needed more.  I was mostly satisfied with the transaction, primarily because of her friendly demeanor (something which I think is more difficult to convey via digital reference), but I think my search could have been better served.

All the services I tried could have done better in terms of instruction and questioning.  I now have some great resources for the project on which my question was based, but I don’t have any better idea on how to find more by myself.

Relatedly: I sent an additional email question on behalf of a friend of mine.  In the answer, the librarian quoted Wikipedia!  In all fairness, the quote did explain the answer clearly and concisely, but I was a little shocked.