Fear of the End of Reference

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Catalog Department, Cleveland Public Library (1937)

Summary: Although there continues to be room for improvement, current search engine technology provides a better user experience than its predecessors did. Yet many librarians insist on teaching how research used to be done. Those who make exaggerations and excuses for clinging to the past do so at their peril.

“I accost an American sailor and inquire why the ships of his country are built so as to last for only a short time; he answers without hesitation that the art of navigation is every day making such rapid progress that the finest vessel would become almost useless if it lasted beyond a few years.”
— Alexis de Tocqueville (Democracy In America, 1840)

In an episode of The X-Files, a captured genie helps her master ponder what to do with his wishes by pointing out that he’s paralyzed. His response? “You’re right! I could wish for a solid gold wheelchair.” People stuck in routines often ignore the best ways to improve their overall quality of life.

The search and retrieval process of yesteryear, with its needlessly convoluted methods, would probably seem like a joke to members of the Google generation. Instead of connecting to a print or online index, looking up sources, then tracking them down through other channels, we now have a single search box that’s connected to our full-text holdings. While not quite one-stop shopping, it’s a significant improvement in making content more discoverable and readily available.

As unrealistic as it is to expect new products to perform perfectly, it’s also fun to be a critic. You can cherry pick defects and poke holes in the work of others. I received 250 feedback reports of Primo linking problems in 2016. About half of those were end-user errors, which I’ll come back to. There’s certainly still flaws with offering seamlessly linked data. Considering our Primo site processed over 1 million basic searches that year, however, it’s not exactly a broken system either.

In a small and shrinking number of cases, the current iteration of that lengthier research process is required to track down more esoteric and maybe even analog information formats. Otherwise, it just works over 99% of the time. And I’m not making this number up, it’s from a study conducted by our vendor:

That missing 1% is justification in some of my colleagues’ eyes for not using or promoting the newer means provided by our discovery tool, in favor of sticking with the long way round. It reminds me of the argument surrounding the teaching of long division in an age of ubiquitous computing. Why bother? People aren’t sufficiently challenging their assumptions on what can be changed. “We’ve always done it that way,” and so on. On a related note, one of our biggest weaknesses, which publishers have certainly learned to prey upon, is the similar “we can’t cancel this title” mentality.

I think many of us fight change because technology has in several ways marginalized traditional librarianship. We don’t need to impart procedural knowledge as much as we once did because searching is now less difficult, for example. And of course, people can obtain their desired information much more easily, and not necessarily via the library.

It’s interesting to look back at old movies or television shows made before cell phones became commonplace and realize how critical plot points evident in lines such as, “If only there was some way we could contact Buffy!” just wouldn’t work today, at least without clichéd contrivances. The hero of Saroo Brierley’s story is not some gritty librarian, toiling away in the dusty archives, but rather the engineers who built Google Earth. What lessons can we take from this?

I’m all too happy to have patrons not regularly understand the finer points of, say, “The OpenURL resolver is prone to fail if bad metadata or special characters are present in the record, in which case you simply connect to the native interface and search for the title that way.” Beyond the required basics, teaching the entire ins and outs of how our rapidly-evolving systems exhibit such quirks detracts from time better spent teaching critical thinking skills and the like.

As big as I am on the whole “teach a man to fish…” educational philosophy when it comes to literacy standards, at some point, there’s stuff people don’t really need to know. Compare to how most of us are content to not DIY every car and home repair job, and call in professionals when its the more economical choice. You shouldn’t have to spend time teaching someone how an engine works in order for them to learn how to drive. Likewise, with search technology changing so frequently, specific troubleshooting techniques that are called upon so rarely aren’t essential skills to learn.

When I was a bank teller, account numbers had an additional check digit printed on statements, making them different than the member number. This created not only confusion amongst people trying to fill out generic deposit and withdrawal slips, but also varying degrees of frustration amongst credit union employees because all customers didn’t somehow know the nature of how our numbering system worked. Looking back, I have to admit that expecting the public to understand this sort of thing was unrealistic.

The gap between what library patrons can usually figure out on their own and what they shouldn’t have to worry about is narrowing. Some librarians interpret this to mean we now need to teach people more stuff. There are different perspectives on the required skills for people to retrieve and evaluate information sources. One side appears driven by the self-affirming statement, “we’ll always need libraries.”

I view the decline in reference desk questions as a good thing. As someone who works more with systems applications than providing reference service as I once did, that’s an unsurprising consequence of viewing the profession through my lens. Search interfaces are becoming more intuitive, and people can connect to what they need without mediated assistance. While it’s not exactly time to close up shop, we don’t need to go out of our way to teach people things they are better off not knowing either, especially outdated or obscure methods.

People choose to belong to a particular political party, or endorse specific candidates, because, in theory, they agree more often than not with their positions. Not supporting someone in your party should still happen when they’re not the best choice. But we’re now witnessing a mass phenomenon in this country where many people are becoming arguably more loyal to their party than their country. I believe this is analogous to valuing processes over outcomes, or in the library world, being more focused on searching methods than actually delivering to people what they’re after. There’s no justification, however, in being tied to a less efficient means for a desired result.

Most people genuinely don’t care, nor should they when you think about it, how information is retrieved. If the end result of seeking to identify the capital of North Dakota is with all practical certainty the same, whether you visit a map library or run a quick and dirty search on your phone, the more economical effort should be the preferred path. Which is why it’s such a shame we continue to drill home the bogus need to rely upon antiquated ways of doing research. Case in point: I was once asked at the reference desk to identify Wisconsin’s state bird. When I answered this question, using a government website, the response I received was, “but I need a print source.”

Lately, much of the grousing about our discovery layer updates seems to go something like this:

  • PATRON: In the old catalog I used to be able to do X to get Y. Why doesn’t the new system offer X anymore? It sucks!
  • LIBRARIAN: I understand your frustration, but you can now do Z to get Y. The entire process is a little bit easier, once you become used to it. Let me show you —
  • PATRON: It sucks!

Without bringing up the debate over whether or not early presses of vinyl records may be initially higher quality and fidelity than digital formats, there’s undeniably both a more cumbersome procedure for listening to records as well as the eventual inclusion of crackles, hiss, and other defects in the recording process inherit in the physical medium. Some hipster audiophiles go so far as to claim those limitations and errors are more authentic and therefore desirable.

I’m still waiting for, along with the resurgence of artisanal crafts and outdated technology such as mechanical typewriters, a movement to bring back card catalogs so we can make libraries great again. Card catalogs, and OPACs too for that matter, were a terrible way to do research compared to what can be accomplished with today’s technology. Out of habit, or nostalgia, or feeling threatened by obsolescence, this basic fact seems lost on many members of the library profession. Things are improving, and will continue to do so, as long as we are open to new ideas.

Fear of failure, or becoming hung up too much on flaws with new systems, can also cause us to underestimate the problems of ignoring innovations. Being unwilling to adapt, doing things the same way, year after year, is probably one of the greatest risks of all. Think also of a helicopter parent that shields their child from every conceivable danger, in the long run sabotaging development of the child’s coping skills, independence, and happiness as an adult.

In my experience, whether people view change as an opportunity for growth and self-improvement or rather perceive change as a threat to their position depends largely on whether they are a victim or a beneficiary of inequity. Maybe that’s the real problem. The jig is up for people who are no longer necessary yet continue to draw a paycheck. To maintain their purpose, they’re left perpetuating misleading images of their value. Consider this graph in a recent library publication:

Here’s how the same data is more objectively represented:

When we first implemented chat reference services, some librarians would copy and paste their answers into Microsoft Word in order to run a spell check (since this was before web browsers had that build-in functionality) before sending them back to live patrons awaiting a reply. This largely and needlessly hindered our response time and probably did more to frustrate impatient users than would an occasionally misspelled word.

We’re simply not matching the pace of our competitors. Although it’s difficult to view this as a good situation, I recently read, from a conference abstract, the claim that, “a library’s e-resources serve a distinct purpose from everyday technology and therefore shouldn’t necessarily keep up with erratic trends.” Seriously? If we allow only commercial entities to innovate, how do we expect to influence where the future is heading?

It’s time to stop deluding ourselves. Further improvements to the research process could very well make us a less integral part of it, but if those changes also save the time of the reader, so much the better. Keeping up with the times entails that things aren’t always perfect, not that they ever were, but will be nonetheless on average better than before.

Further Reading

Check out my other posts for related commentary.

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