Off the Shelf

A library diary

Desk Set

The other day, someone mentioned the movie Desk Set to me. I hadn’t seen it but the plot intrigued me: a showdown between corporate librarians at a large TV network (could it be modeled after NBC?) and the new computer planned by an MIT whiz kid (played by Spencer Tracy) to replace them. The head librarian (Bunny Watson), played by Katharine Hepburn of anorexic slimness, is a one-woman dynamo, instantly able to recall a plethora of facts and figures, belt down her champagne with the best of them, and solve any brain teaser thrown her way. In a word, she’s a wonder.

In the film, the computer malfunctions, the librarians win, and Spencer Tracy gets the girl (or Hepburn gets her guy)–entertainment all around. If you’ve never seen the movie, well, you should.

Of course, it’s just like me to bring the movie into 21st Century focus. What I mean is that it brings up some interesting issues. In thinking about how libraries stack up against electronic systems, I can’t help feeling that the more things change the more they stay the same (except perhaps, for the fact that today we work with more media types than we did in the mid-20th century). Nowadays, more people with a dazzling array of titles are doing so-called “knowledge management” in many more places throughout an organization.

Much has been made of the image of librarians in popular culture, but for every negative stereotype, I can think of another where a librarian appears in space-age science fiction and fantasy (think Soylent Green with Charlton Heston and Leigh Taylor-Young) with extra special powers and political clout (think Bette Davis in Storm Center. Everybody enjoys a good story, especially when that story turns conventional thinking on its head. And in my mind, that’s what good reference providers do every day: we take a question and turn it upside down, deconstructing its meaning. A really good information professional has a critical edge that has everything to do with providing true reference counsel and not as much to do with the technology as you might think. To quote Alice Youmans, a reference librarian at UC Berkeley’s Law Library:

…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.

I know what you’re thinking: another rant about the wonders of librarianship inspired by the Luddite view that technology is no replacement. But that’s not it. It’s not for nothing that the information profession is full of a wide range of people, and it’s not uncommon to find a goodly number over 40 getting their MLIS. Nor is it usually their first advanced degree. Ard et. al (2006) found that “a substantial number” of MLIS students come from fields such as business, science, and education. I see two main draws to the profession. First, the unmistakable fact that in these digital times we’re all using electronic media and there are so many ways to accomplish a task that a lot of us are aware we could be doing it better–for fun or for work. Second, this is a helping profession, just like health care or social work and as such it carries certain standards. Katharine Hepburn’s Bunny Watson, is well aware of this, as well as the value of her knowledge work to her firm. She’s the personification of the dedicated and imaginative professional who understands one of the most important memes of the information age: relationships are the cornerstone of success and knowledge work is about relationships.

I’m using “reference” here in its broadest sense from “Where’s the bathroom?” to the most complicated online referral. As a profession, I’ve always thought reference work was at the top of the value chain, though hardly everybody would agree. Some, librarians included, see it simply as a matter of parsing text. To me, that implies reference is a relatively easy thing to automate. But I think you can’t replace humans with technological solutions until you understand what you might lose. The last time Pew did an internet study, they reported  reported that 80% of the college students polled used the library less than 3 hours a week and that 9% started their initial investigations there. I wonder what Bunny Watson would say. Probably that students are just being expedient and that information professionals are managing the best and most reliable sites.

Even with Web 2.0 and digital tools, information professionals still hold (to quote law librarian Terence Huwe) the “killer application;” namely, the reference interview. That’s when we start the dialogue with the searcher to find out what it is he or she is looking for. And so much of it lends itself to the digital environment. There’s a simple, but powerful moment in that exchange that usually involves the reference provider asking, in an off-hand way, “What were you really hoping to find?” To quote Huwe:

At that 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 isn’t a matter of parsing text, it’s a matter of parsing everything. For example, one reference librarian writes about a doctoral student who was one of his “key customers.” This customer was working on a doctorate that involved an analysis of how petroleum producers instituted safety standards over time. To prove her point, the student needed to see company files on the subject–not the stuff of libraries or online databases. Using contacts from the Special Libraries Association, the reference guy was able to arrange for the student to visit a high security production plant. Though she was escorted by armed guards, she did get to read through company regulations and was able to obtain other supporting documents. And the reference librarian? He is very proud to point out that it made all the difference to the student who’s now a tenured professor at UMass.

This is not about how libraries are better than computers; it’s about the fact that librarians use all resources including some time-honored strategies, like personal contact, to maximum advantage. As some of you will recall when you’re looking for that elusive article, I’m often able to track down the correspondence author, write or phone him or her, and get you what you need. I can’t think of an occasion to date where we’ve been refused. All this to say, please do not become addicted to one media type over the other. Sometimes, things just boil down to people connecting.

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