I know how I’d answer

Anecdote 1: Today I said to the Provost, in a discussion of libraries and computer labs, “It makes sense; they’re an outward-facing service, and that’s what libraries are really good at.  We provide services to users, and we like helping people.”  I believe that.  Libraries are good at providing services to users, and librarians like helping people.


Anecdote 2: A student just came to the Ref desk, with a call number written on a piece of scrap paper. “Is this in the basement?”
“Nope, that’s over there in the Reference collection, because, see, there’s the REF before the rest of the call number?  That means over there.”
“So, then, what’s in the basement?”
“A-C, and D-Z are upstairs… unless there’s a REF, in which case, it’s all over to the left.”
“Huh.  Okay.”

He came back.  The dictionary he found didn’t have what he needed (a good long definition of ethos, pathos, and logos from the perspective of persuasive argument and rhetoric).

As I searched our online encyclopedias, he said, “So, how did you learn to do all this?”
“Grad school teaches us some of it — the theory of how people look for information, of how to get you to tell me what you really need when you’re trying not to bother me, and how information is organized in print resources.  But mostly, you learn by doing.  Or by asking me.”

Eventually, after three false starts, I found an encyclopedia of rhetoric that had good essays on each concept.

He would never have succeeded on his own.  Not because he wasn’t trying, but because he just couldn’t navigate our systems effectively.  Hell, I could barely navigate our systems effectively, and I’m a professional.


Anecdote 3: Go read this Friendfeed thread, which starts with:

Imagine, if you will, if the systems for accessing full text journal articles were as complicated before online databases, indexes and ejournals as it is now… In order to enter this room full of journals, you must first unlock the door using a seekrit combination. Then, 6 months of journal A will be missing but 12 months of journal B will be missing, but we will have seven sets of journal C, each covering a different period of years, [and] the earlier years of journal D are in separate room 3 floors down and across the building, just follow this strand of yarn, you’ll be fine.


The responses are sad, but also funny, if you love libraries and can have a sense of humor about what we do.

And so.  I say, we help people.  It’s what we do, and we work hard at it.  We like it, people like it, it’s a social good.

And then I ask, but are we doing a good job of building systems that let us do it?

I know how I’d answer that question.


  1. I did a library instruction today for an English class. Focused as much of the discussion as I could on how to create search statements, coming up with keywords, navigating options in the database, yada yada. After the instruction their teacher wanted them to use the rest of the time to find at least two articles from our library databases. Later, one of the students raised their hand needing help finding articles that compared the emergency care quality and costs of Medicaid patients to those who had regular insurance. We came up negative everywhere. It was like we were biting the crusts around a BLT sandwhich rather than eating the juicy middle. We knew the good information was in there somewhere but nothing we came up with had the right focus.

    So, I think I know how I’d answer that question too. 😉


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