Friday, June 27, 2008

Article Note: On reference services and digital environments

Citation for the article:

Buckland, Michael K. "Reference Library Service in the Digital Environment." Library and Information Science Research 30 (2008): 81-85.

Read via ScienceDirect.

This small article is an attempt to look at reference services along with a digital environment in a holistic way. In other words, it is looking not only at the librarians providing the reference service, but the reference collection itself. I have to agree with the author that the library literature rarely if ever considers the reference collection as part of the services. More often than not the administrators are more busy finding ways to dismantle reference collections than attempting to empower users and integrating those collections into the larger picture of reference services. The article is a short piece, and it is mostly a look at the literature with a call to what needs to be considered further for research in our profession. Here are then some highlights with some humble observations:

  • "Two related characteristics stand out in research literature on the reference library service: There is little about the reference library as a whole, about the coherent combination of space, reference works, amenities (e.g. space, tables, and copy services), and library staff; and the research is primarily about the empowerment of librarians, not about the empowerment of library users" (82; italics in the original).
This is one of the things that I have been thinking about more now that I head a reference unit. Unfortunately, like every other library, the interest seems to be in dismantling the collection in favor of space and amenities. Somehow sense of balance is lost. Now, I am not foolish enough to fail seeing that more resources have gone online. That is not the point. The point is that a well-selected and lean reference collection along with a trained librarian and empowered users can provide a better service. When I was reading this, here is what I wondered: in other words, should we explore how to better integrate reference services and a collection instead of overseeing a reference collection's demise? I would think the basic answer to that is yes. How to go about it is what has me thinking at the moment.

A lot of the L2 arguments center around the idea of empowering users, to help them help themselves. Well, that is when the L2 people take a break from simply promoting the latest gadgets or more gaming. However, the idea of helping the patrons help themselves in the library is not a new one. It has been around for quite a while. Buckland quotes Martin Schrenttinger and James Wyer in the article, and this serves to illustrate my small observation:
  • "Back in 1930 James Wyer's Reference work: A textbook for students of library work and librarians, published by the American Library Association, had this to say: 'With all this must go the utmost efforts at training in self-help. No theory of reference work is complete which fails to recognize the library's obligation to train its public in the use of its collections. This is at bottom only altruistic selfishness, because a trained public that helps itself will make for easier and more satisfying library service, and will enable more people to be served.' (Wyer, 1930, p.9)" (qtd. in 82; italics in original).
  • "Direct assistance to library users is, of course, very valuable, but that should not lead us to forget that the core professional task of librarians since the phrase 'library science' was coined two hundred years ago by Martin Schrenttinger (1808) has not been direct service to patrons but the design and deployment of systems and services that enable patrons to serve themselves" (82).
What was that thing some fellow said about those who do not read their history? Reading things like this makes me wonder if some of the L2 apologists simply do not look at where we have been prior to making their pronouncements. Anyways, I pretty much promised myself I would stay out of the L2 terrain, so let us move along.

  • "The most basic level of service in a reference library is the provision of a judicious selection of reference resources in which users can look, with the librarian providing some direction as and when needed" (82). Yes, this does include online resources as well as print.
  • "Selection for inclusion in a reference library is a significant endorsement" (84). Here is part of the reason we hire librarians: to make those professional judgments.
  • The parting thought: "The theme underlying this paper is the need to develop structures appropriate to digital technology, to the users' needs, and to the users' work environment" (84).

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