February 16, 2018

Why I Don’t Use Libraries for Reference Anymore

ljx101102webRef3(Original Import)I began using public libraries decades ago, when the ‘People’s University’ ethos was stronger and truer. I’ve reluctantly let go of that notion. Experience has taught me not to pursue interests at libraries that extend beyond light entertainment. You see, even though there are 26 libraries within a ten-mile radius of my home (13 public, two branches, 11 academic), I often have difficulty obtaining from them basic reference information and sometimes even materials.

The Reference User Experience
Fish Market 101: Why Not a Reference User Experience?, by Steven Bell
Imagination, Sympathy, and the User Experience, by Wayne Bivens-Tatum
Why I Don’t Use Libraries for Reference Anymore, by Jean Costello
The Visibility and Invisibility of Librarians, by James LaRue

My most recent reference inquiry, for a pointer to a source for literary criticism, was a failure. I’d planned to reprint a famous poem, ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’ by Dylan Thomas, on my blog and wanted to include a citation to an article that discussed its meaning. The source didn’t need to be the most authoritative or profound; I was simply looking for something about the poem beyond a superficial description of its structure. I never even got close.

An in-person inquiry at one of my area’s better public libraries wasn’t fruitful. The library director pointed me to the library’s database web page and signaled pretty clearly that this was the extent of the assistance I’d receive. The available databases proved poor references. Author and title searches of Gale’s Contemporary Literary Criticism returned 141 articles with tangential mentions; the results were totally irrelevant. Advanced search was a misnomer. Gale’s Biography in Context was also listed as a literary source though it proved to be merely a rudimentary resource for grade-schoolers.

Even though I knew it was a no-no, I tried the online chat with a library 30 miles away. The staff were helpful and referred a database that my region doesn’t subscribe to, which was okay. Though I wasn’t any closer to finding a source, I felt good about the library experience until an email from the library director arrived shortly thereafter. She kindly explained that the online reference service was for her town’s taxpayers and requested that I not use it again.

Access denied

At this point I could have personally visited one of the academic libraries but was concerned that I might come up short there as well. Literature wasn’t listed on the database page of the two largest colleges, which may have been a signal that the topic isn’t ‘in their wheelhouse.’ Besides, I just didn’t have the stamina to face the interrogation that precedes each inquiry (are you a student here, a faculty member, a town resident), even when there are no other patrons on the floor. I can never be sure if the staff are censuring me or are fearful of being chastised by a supervisor for providing out-of-boundary service, but, either way, the routine usually feels lousy.

So I gave up – the information just wasn’t worth the hassle.

My track record for obtaining materials through public libraries has also been hit or miss. Interlibrary loan (ILL) requests have been denied a few times because a book was in an academic collection. Despite reciprocal lending agreements, cooperation between institutions seems strained, and so I’ve needed to escalate with one of the libraries to free up the material. Recently, I had difficulty requesting a journal article a public library reference librarian helped me identify because the staffer who processes ILL was unfamiliar with scholarly citations and became exasperated when I suggested she might need the volume and page numbers to obtain the article for me.

Some of what I’ve described here is because I’m a resident of Massachusetts, whose library system might well be the most fragmented and parochial in the nation. Some of it, though, is symptomatic of intractable resource management issues that create barriers between people seeking information and those who can provide it.

The libraries near me would probably cite funding as a cause for poor service, but I’m not persuaded. Budget increases would do nothing to discourage consortia from licensing inadequate database products. They would do nothing about library culture that fragments processes to the point that a reference librarian who identifies a source cannot do the transaction to procure it, and the person responsible for ILL isn’t sufficiently trained to bring in the material. Larger budgets would also not address the provincialism that discourages or prohibits library staff from servicing ‘outsiders’ even when there are no ‘insiders’ in the support queue. My struggle to get what seem like basic services from an epicenter of 26 libraries is not a resource problem; it’s a resource management problem.

I’ve learned not to push

I’ve been told I’m the model reference user – the kind of curious and savvy patron whom librarians wish would walk through the door. Yet, when I actually do come through, I bring inquiries that bump up against barriers and generate friction. Sometimes my requests are outside a staff member’s comfort zone. Sometimes they may tweak a professional frustration about limited cultural or institutional resources and that gets reflected back to me. So I’ve learned not to push. Instead, I’ve come to accept that the libraries available to me are good sources for popular entertainment material and pleasant conversation with staff. Anything else is more than the system can provide.

Author Information
Jean Costello (radicalpatron.com/contact) is a Technical Project Manager for a prominent STM publisher and blogs regularly as the Radical Patron (radicalpatron.com)


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