30 December 2009

Stuck in the Age of the Source

Reference service has always been about finding the exact information to answer a question. But since the advent of the Web and search engines, there's been a sea-change in the method for finding that information. Problem is, a lot of us (on both sides) are unaware of the change. Our unawareness is making our jobs harder, and making the library's resources more opague to patrons.

In the Olden Days, before the Web and search engines, the key to being a good reference librarian was to know your sources. Picking the right source was essential to getting the answer. (If you look very closely, you'll see that one of the behaviors correlated with reference success is still "finds answer in first source consulted.")

It's hard for librarians who have grown up with the Web to appreciate how important it was to be familiar with sources. Take a simple example: Which U.S. President was the first to speak on the radio? Now before you hit Google, let's pretend that there's a power failure and you have no internet access. I guarantee you, the answer is in your branch: what is it?

If you are aware of the reference book Famous First Facts, you will be able to find out that Warren G. Harding. If you aren't, you'll still be looking when the power comes back.

Another one (remember, no internet): When was Hurricane Agnes? You could scour the weather books, or you could look in Chase's Calendar and find it was June 14-23, 1972.

The point here is not that knowing the proper reference source can help when the power goes out. The point is that in the past, knowing the proper reference source was all there was. The source wasn't just the first thing, it was the only thing.

Today we don't need to worry about being familiar with sources. We have search engines, which keep up with the sources much better than we ever could. Today, the source isn't the first thing, second thing, or often even the tenth thing; the first thing is knowing how to structure your search terms.

We are no longer in the Age of Source; we are now in the Age of Search.

Trouble is, some folks who came up during the Age of Source have not made the adjustment. Some of them are not even aware that there's an adjustment to be made.

We still train our new people as if we were in the Age of Source. We have a Core Reference Collection of the "best sources," and our new folks spend incredible amounts of time familiarizing themselves with the Core Sources. Enormous amounts of time and effort go into updating and maintaining the Core Reference training assignments. I don't know who sits there correcting page numbers and writing new questions every time a print source is updated, but I have to wonder if their time couldn't be better spent.

We treat databases and websites as if Source was the only thing. First of all, on our website we separate paid databases from recommended websites...to enormous confusion among staff and patrons. Imagine that someone asks you which President was first to appear on television -- and your immediate response is to wonder whether the answer will be in a paid database or on a free website?

Second, click on our "databases" menu option. Go ahead, click on it. What do you get? An alphabetical listing of databases. Talk about putting the Source first! Before you can even start to find the answer, you have to know the bleeding name of the database.

Who arranges things that way? Those who are stuck in the Age of Source.

Is it any wonder that most patrons turn first to Google, or that they accept the first answer they find (usually in Wikipedia)? Reference librarians, be honest: except for the few databases you use all the time, don't you usually go to Google first?

So what would be better? For training, sure, review sources: but concentrate much more on search strategies. Stop quizzing people on print sources and endlessly updating those quizzes. If the power goes out, we're just going to have to muddle through.

One the website, let's eliminate the distinction between databases and recommended websites.

And if not an alphabetical listing of databases, then what? Ideally, we would have what patrons expect: a search box, which would use some kind of magical federated searching to select the right databases and websites for the questioner. I know that's beyond our means right now, but fortunately a second-best solution already exists: a subject index to databases and recommended websites. Staff and patrons shouldn't have to be intimately familiar with the sources; they should concentrate on the question.

Let's make a subject listing of databases and websites the default. The alphabetical index can still be there, just don't make it the first thing that comes up.

The Age of Source is over. Except for power failures...and during a power failure, you can't access the databases and recommended websites anyway.

The Age of Search is here. Has been here for a long time. It's a new millennium, a new century, and we're coming up on a new decade.

When will we give up the past and join the present?


CJ said...

Your thoughtful and thought-provoking articles about the library profession are wonderful. For someone who has only been at this job for 6 years, it's always an education to learn about "the Olden Days" and how they differ from today. I agree with your suggestions about modifying the training. I have only used a few of the sources I learned about in Core Reference, but have really honed my search term strategy through trial and error and that has been infinitely more useful to me in performing reference service. I look forward to your next missive!
Catherine @ BOW

Meerkatdon said...

I tried, really I did, to fit in something about "putting the Source before the cart," but I just couldn't make it work.

The EEB said...

I think that you should try to get this one published in Library Journal or Public Libraries.

Meerkatdon said...

Ellen: Thanks for the idea. I prettied it up a little and sent it off to LJ. Now we'll have to wait 4-6 weeks to see what they say....

Scoop said...

Good ideas. I always end up clicking on the "subject" button to sort the databases. It's not easy figuring out what's in them by name in any case (I still stumble over Virtual Reference Library, thinking it's not quite a Real Reference Library)...