Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Research Skills, not Shiny Toys

I want to discuss a program about "borrowing librarians," but just for fun let’s first look at a way in which Republican congressmen and twopointopians/ oneohonions are the same.

Republicans in Congress are taking to social media like twopointopians at an unconference, according to this NPR story. They’re making YouTube videos and Facebook pages and tweeting up a storm. The Republicans and the twopointopians seem to have something else in common.

"Republican strategist Mindy Finn, who helped Virginia Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell find his voice online, tells NPR’s

‘Members who don’t have a lot of say or don’t have much of a voice in Congress can use social media to talk directly to their constituents, to voters and to activists,’ says Finn, a partner and blogger at the political consulting firm Engage."

That quote from a Republican "strategist" sounds niftier if you don’t analyze it. But edit out the verbiage and we get, "Members who don’t have a lot to say…can use social media to talk directly to [people]."

Substitute librarians for members and you have the twopointopian movement in a nutshell: Librarians who don’t have much to say can use social media. The twopointopians use social media to tell us about…social media! Yay!

But I’m more interested in this story from Colorado about a public library system letting patrons "borrow librarians." The article begins oddly:

"You can borrow books from a library. You can borrow movies. But, did you know in the Arapahoe Library District, you can borrow librarians?

‘We’re their personal search engines,’ said Pamela Bagby, librarian."

I said "oddly," but I really meant annoyingly. I hate that phrase "personal search engine." And the phrase "borrow librarians" isn’t at all accurate, and only leads to sexually suggestive comments. The program is called "Book a Librarian," where "patrons can schedule one-on-one time with a librarian who can aide in researching virtually any topic from travel to health to homework."

Many librarians would just call this a research consultation, and hardly newsworthy. Most academic libraries offer them. Are they such a rarities in public libraries? Based on my three minutes of Google searching, they would seem to be.

That would certainly explain things like the 55% rule. If you’re not familiar with it, the 55% rule is based on a study years ago that claimed reference librarians give correct answers to queries about 55% of the time. What can you expect if the warm body who happens to be staffing the reference desk at any given time is expected to answer all questions that might come up.

For a lot of questions, you can’t help people if you don’t know anything about the topic, and you can’t know much about a topic without some preliminary research or education in that subject. No wonder I’ve read studies where the patron wants information about cancer and the librarian points to the 616s and grunts.

So are there other public libraries that offer research consultations? And if not, shouldn’t there be? Assuming that people come to reference librarians only after Google and Wikipedia have failed them, wouldn’t it make sense to offer people more in-depth research help rather than to maintain the fiction that whoever happens to be staffing the reference desk is an expert on finding information on any topic?

This library system is hardly a trailblazer when it comes to research consultations, but if it’s a public library trailblazer it’s finally doing something that all libraries should be doing.

Some librarians seem to have professional inferiority complexes. They want to make themselves seem "relevant." Those with little to say use social media to proclaim that social media makes them relevant, but tweeting or making YouTube videos aren’t things librarians do any better than other people, whereas helping people with research is. Maybe public libraries should spend less time writing blogs and sending tweets no one reads and more time promoting the research services that actually distinguish librarians from other professions.

The twopointopians want to brand librarians as techie geeks and early adopters who immerse themselves in every new tech trend regardless of how stupid it is. Librarians as professionals would be better off showcasing their research skills and building personal connections with patrons around areas of librarian expertise rather than areas any 12-year-old can master.

Research consultations are a much better way of doing this than any social media. Emphasizing and promoting the research skills of librarians and proving the worth of those skills to individuals in consulations make librarians more professionally valuable than proving they can watch Hulu videos. If librarians want to be "relevant," they need to estabilish professional relationships with people based on areas of expertise.

Sometimes librarians compare themselves to other professionals, like lawyers. That’s a joke, but it doesn’t have to be. You never see lawyers, even public attorneys, sitting around wating for questions about any aspect of law with an expectation they will be answered. You don’t go to your public defender with questions about securities law.

Lawyers specialize. The twopointopians and the oneohonions and others emphasize no special skills or knowledge that any ordinary person can’t easily acquire. If librarians want to be taken seriously as professionals, they have to show other people their worth as specialists in areas people value. The academic and public librarians who do that now are taken seriously by serious people. The twopointopians and oneohonions are taken seriously by no one but themselves.




  1. Of course, public librarians do research consultations. This is simply a way of advertising it. Duh. A way of getting across to a sometimes thick public that this is available.

    BTW, a baseball player that hit a home run 55% of the time would be a billionaire. And I highly doubt that academic librarians do any better. Of course they get the same questions over and over from their captive, built-in, user population. Public Librarians never know what they will be hit with.

  2. I also like the way you, oh so subtly, change “a lot of say” to “a lot to say”.

  3. Dr. Pepper says:

    A baseball player who hit 55% would be a billionaire, but his life-span in the game is quite short, so the pay is amortized.

    As far as reference librarians go, I am constantly surprised at how little they know or specialize. All reference librarians, with the exception of one, were English majors who decided to go to library school because they liked books. As a consequence they are horrible generalist reference librarians because the info they retrieve is not anything a cursory google search or a search through lexis nexis won’t find.

  4. librarypenguin says:

    All reference librarians, with the exception of one, were English majors who decided to go to library school because they liked books.

    Or art history majors who decided to go to library school because they liked working in libraries but couldn’t pass the paraprofessional typing test and wanted to eat and pay bills and whatnot.

  5. Post Postmodern Librarian says:

    Most public libraries do not have the resources to carry out a large specialized research program. This was a cute way to advertise the reference staff. I do not think it is a question of over generalized or non specialization of library staff but poor reference interviews resulting from staff and patrons unwillingness to take more then 3 mins to communicate an idea. The ugh 616s issue. If done right a good reference interview will let the generalist librarian shine as they work out the actual question and point people to works. Heres a good example do a Google search for John Lenin and see what you get, and how confused you would be by it if you didnt do a reference interview. The poor reference interview isnt just the result of poor training but poor patron attention spans and inability to communicate. I dont know how many times i have given many resources handing the books to them and then have them grunt their disapproval that it wasnt “the answer” because they would actually have to read more then a webpage.

  6. Joy Kennedy says:

    Hey, in special libraries, research consultations are what you do! I’m a solo medical librarian serving a large (fantastic) community hospital. Being able to sit down with a nurse, dietician, pharmacist, physician, whatever and really dig for the specialized piece of information as a team is one of the highlights of my week. I pull the specialized medical knowledge from them, the details of the case, and use my research skills to find the answer to help treat the patient! All true reference librarians LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this kind of one on one work with users and (as a former public librarian) seldom can spend the time needed to do it right. Busy public librarians point to the 610’s because the phone is ringing, another person is waiting and they simply can’t spend the time needed for individual, specialized help…..or they lack the expertise and confidence in their reference skills needed for the work. Let’s just say special librarians and academic librarians (with tenure) have this as part of their mission and take the time needed for this kind of help.

  7. Dr. Pepper: Amortized. So what? And despite your bias towards English Majors, most are quite good generalists. Studying literature includes studying many other subjects as well, especially history. Do you honestly believe some computer or math geek would make a better generalist? Please.

  8. Amortize a billion dollars for me and I will cut my career short. And that will free up a job for a whiny 20-something.

  9. that .550 hitter would be worthless because every pitcher would just walk him.. unless he wore a big, bushy mustache disguise. I agree with everything about specialization.. even our library stopped assigning specialties to our librarians after we purchased all our eelektronick databaselets.

  10. “Do you honestly believe some computer or math geek would make a better generalist? Please.”

    Nope, but you might be surprised at how many people come to us first before stopping off at the reference desk. I just usually send them to the reference desk, unless their problem is computer related.

    For some reason, patrons seem to think that we computer geeks, know everything about everything, when in reality, we are specialists in computer geekiness.

  11. See, I can’t even punctuate correctly.

  12. Library Pickle says:

    Joy Kennedy: “Busy public librarians point to the 610’s because the phone is ringing, another person is waiting and they simply can’t spend the time needed for individual, specialized help…..or they lack the expertise and confidence in their reference skills needed for the work.” AGREED.

    This is a big problem for me, because my system wants to change to offer one-on-one type reference librarian sessions where we help people job search and work on their resumes, but I have absolutely no background in that field so everything I know is from my own personal experiences or from self instruction. Being a public reference librarian can be very rewarding, but also frustrating because the public may not understand that we are not a academic/law/medical research library to meet all of their vague/very specific questions. The system I previously worked for at least offered training sessions for staff to work on learning new skills, but with budgets slashed I’m now expected to know everything with inadequate training. Plus I need to answer three phonelines, register patrons for new cards, and work on the library’s new Facebook page at the same time.

  13. Library guy says:

    A baseball player who had a .550 batting average – 55-percent – would indeed be a billionaire. But a basketball player who only makes 55-percent of his freethrows is terrible. Comparing the two skills must be tempered with the difficulty in accomplishing the task. I, for one, find a 55-percent success rate on questions asked shocking, especially when considering the resources available to find the correct answer. By those numbers, if the questions had yes or no answers, you could simply guess and be almost as accurate; which is wild when you consider the most asked question is – where’s the restroom?

  14. I find it insulting to insinuate that public librarians are idiots who can only grunt. I work with a talented group of research professionals that I would put up against an academic librarian any day. And to suggest that academic librarians are the only ones who take the time to do a proper reference interview is ridiculous. I went to a large university where it was quite clear the librarians had better things to do than show some stupid freshman how to search a database. I figured most things out for myself. I’m not saying public librarians don’t have this attitude sometimes, but don’t generalize an entire profession by suggesting we are trained monkeys. I actually manage to help people find information they can’t find on their own, and I do it through a reference interview the same way an academic librarian does. The big difference is that a public library cannot afford the specialized collections a university can afford. So yes, I do tell college students at home over Christmas break that are trying to do an in depth report on paleoclimatic geomorphology that they’ll have to go to their school for back issues of Quaternary Review.

  15. Ryan Deschamps says:

    Any public library that put serious resources into creating ‘specialist librarians’ in a public library is reeling from that decision today. Specialization creates value if an only if 1) there is demand for that particular kind of knowledge 2) only a few people can supply the supposed specialization.

    Specialized questions in public libraries are few and far between – and have been shrinking considerably. The main reason for this is that the ‘public’ is more than happy not to be in school any more. In general, the public goes to the library for enjoyment and relaxation – a time to decompress. Having a collection of ‘annoyed’ academic librarians specialized in esoteric subjects headings constructed mostly by old academics does not fulfill this need.

    Learning in public libraries is relaxed learning – and therefore, public libraries need employees who also specialize in ‘fun’ (so to speak – think customer service, aesthetically pleasing spaces, able to coordinate and connect social groups and networks and so on).

    That doesn’t mean that research consultations are out of the question – it really depends on the community though. Areas where there are universities close by often need these services. Genealogy and Local History information support is another area of particular interest and concern. But in the end, these services are expensive for the value they provide the broader public.

  16. Our state library has a reference staff available to take questions that the public libraries (many of them tiny and with no MLS staff of their own) get stumped by. That’s a handy service, except for them only being open M-F, 8-5. But you can ask via email if it’s not urgent. The last time I tried a public library reference desk, it was the main branch in a proud, major metro area. I had a query about local growing conditions for bulbs and she told me to call WalMart and asked for their gardening section. Then waved me away. Very professional.

  17. I Like Books says:

    These days, with Google and Kindle and the rest of that electronic stuff, some people are wondering what the role of libraries should even be.

    And I think personalized consultations are a great role for librarians! That’s who you’d turn to if you couldn’t find what you wanted after ten minutes on Google. Make an appointment so the librarian has some time to work on it before you show up– I’m sure it can be difficult to answer every question fully and accurately right there while the customer waits and more stand in line.

    But there’s more. I’ve usually only gone to librarians when I couldn’t find something myself, so they get the tough questions. And too often I eventually just wander away, disappointed. What they COULD do, especially at the main branch where they actually have some serious research material, is offer to research further, giving a few days to work on it. Then e-mail me or make an appointment for later to go over what they found. They don’t, but they could.

    And public librarians don’t need to be specialists, but they should know who the specialists are, so they can make referrals.

    Even when I e-mailed an Ask A Librarian, the response I got was superficial and not referenced.

    That’s something for them to work on– the professional resource to turn to when Google fails.

  18. I don’t know about academic libraries, but in public libraries, Google and reference librarians faced off 5-10 years ago and Google won. It wasn’t even close. Since then, sensible public libraries have abandoned efforts to provide “research consultations.” Only rich, urban public libraries have any business providing reference service at all and only then as a way of helping people access the library’s collection.

    When I picture a subject specialist librarian in a medical library who has at best a master’s degree in chemistry providing a “research consultation” to a professor who is a physician researcher, I find it silly. The idea that academic librarians can advance subject disciplines by performing “research consultations” sounds a little inflated. The suggestion that public librarians specialize in subject areas is misguided. Academic libraries have little to teach public libraries in this area.

  19. bookgirl33 says:

    In large research library systems, such as Yale, UCLA, or the University of Chicago they do virtual reference(e-mail, text, meebo or twitter) So you have 2 strikes already. You don’t know where the person is coming from. And you don’t have visual clues to help you in the interview. And to make it even more fun they have schedules of who staffs the virtual reference desk. So from 12-3 pm the Religion ref library answers questions. What happens when you get an involved medical question? Or math or something about the history of China? Since it’s not your area should you not answer it? Your job is to answer it or try. Reference training in MLS programs have to address these issues. Part of the answer is to know about databases, sources, ect. Doesn’t matter what you majored in as an undergrad. Might help with a specific field. But the training in reference is what matters. Might be some people didn’t intend to BE a reference librarian.

  20. TheIlliterateLibrarian says:

    @bookgirl33 …but in my library when a librarian gets a question that is not in his/her area of expertise, we pass it along to someone else we know can answer it. Reference questions/requests are not promised immediate answers (the immediacy thing is one thing that I believe contributes to a 45% failure rate). I know when I worked in a public library it was tough to work on a research request and get back to a patron because of the demands on my time. Now days, in a specialized research library, I have the luxury of saying, ok, I don’t know anything about X, I’ll ask the X librarian. And he’s a gracious fellow, so he will provide the answer to the patron, then explain to me how he found it, so that if I’m feeling adventurous, I’ll dive into X archive and see if I can duplicate his result. I also get my fair share of oddball questions thrown my way because I’m a font of useless information and I spout off like Old Faithful at regular intervals. You know. For that one dude who is looking for scholarly postulation on Batman’s religious identity. I’m on that.

    One thing I can say about working in tech support before librarianship–I can drag the real ‘problem’ or real ‘question’ out of a patron. Because someone calling and saying “my computer doesn’t start” tells you just as little as “I want to know about cryptozoology.” You may want to start with “Is the power out in your house” or “what are you looking for in particular? A particular type of animal, or general information on what cryptozoology is? Is this for a school paper, or is your kid just curious?” I KNOW the question they’re asking is never the question they MEAN to be asking–and YES, library schools have to train librarians intensely in the psychological warfare known as the Reference Interview. Goes without saying.

    I do admire this library’s way of branding the reference interview. I also appreciate that they’re giving their librarians dedicated time to work on a problem–many public libraries do not. I was expected to check out books, shelve books and perform reference might and magic all at the same time. At least these patrons know they’re going to have the full 5 or 15 minutes with their librarian, without interruptions about filling out card applications, etc. I think overall the concept is positive, especially if the librarian has the option to refer to the music department for more information, etc.

    One philosophy I had in tech support that I still maintain today is that I never give “I don’t know” as an answer. I ALWAYS gave people another resource to check. “I don’t know, but if you call the manufacturer, they should be able to tell you exactly who is authorized to replace LCD displays on your model in this area” is a hell of a lot better of an answer than “it’s not my job to know that, we didn’t make the LCD display.”

    “I don’t know when this symphony was written (and I’m not finding it in any of our immediate resources), but I do know who we can ask about this. He’s out for lunch, but we can put in a request to him, and he can help us with the answer” is a lot better than guessing or throwing a book at a patron on music theory, which is completely not what she’s looking for anyway.

    I think people give up on paying attention to context both of the question and of the answer they’re giving out of fatigue and not necessarily stupidity or malitious intent. Still, it’s not like we cultivate an environment in the library that allows for decent answers such as “I don’t know, but I can point you to the right resource” because we’re so afraid librarians are going to sit around and do nothing. They’re given 40 hours worth of work to do in the week, and that work takes exactly 40 hours to do, oh yeah and you’re supposed to answer reference quesitons WHILE you’re doing xyz as well. It’s poor planning and unrealistic expectations on the part of management, really.

  21. “Specialized questions in public libraries are few and far between – and have been shrinking considerably.”

    I think it depends on the area the library serves. I previously worked at a suburban branch in an affluent neighborhood and was only asked “fun” type questions about entertainment or reader’s advisory. Currently I work in a more metropolitian branch that serves a very diverse population and nearly all the questions I get are specialized or research orientated!

  22. Dances With Books says:

    “Librarians as professionals would be better off showcasing their research skills and building personal connections with patrons around areas of librarian expertise rather than areas any 12-year-old can master.”


    “Emphasizing and promoting the research skills of librarians and proving the worth of those skills to individuals in consulations make librarians more professionally valuable than proving they can watch Hulu videos.”

    I think those two statements say it all, regardless of where you fall into the whole “specializing or not” debate that seems to be forming. At the end of the day, a good reference librarian can find the information a patron needs if they have a good knowledge of sources, know how to do a reference interview, and are willing to help the patron instead of passing the buck (this is not to say you cannot refer someone elsewhere. I mean people who literally pass the buck, of which I have a lot here, but digress). In the end, it is a matter of actually showcasing and showing our actual research skills. If you don’t have those skills, and you call yourself a “librarian,” you need to be in some other line of work.

  23. Well then says:

    Wow, we are a self-righteous bunch, aren’t we?

    Between bashing on those younger (‘whiny 20-something) and feeling good about yourselves because you serve the public and not a built-in audience like those terrible academic librarians, I’m astounded any of you have people asking you anything.

    And for the record, I’m a 20-something, academic librarian who doesn’t take herself so seriously for a reason. We’re here to help, so get off your high horse and do so.

  24. And what is wrong with using shiny toys to market those excellent research skills?

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