v23 #4 Back Talk – Virtual and Real Reference

Column Editor:  Anthony (Tony) W. Ferguson  (Library and Information Science Consultant and former Hong Kong University Librarian;  now relocated to Sahuarita, Arizona)  <anthony.ferguson185@gmail.com>

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I am now writing you temporarily from the mountains of Wyoming instead of the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong or the dry heat of Arizona.  If I ignore the Taco Bells and Wendy’s fast food outlets that I see when I go to town (Afton, Wyoming) and the fact that I am driving myself, I could imagine I was back in the mountains of western Xinjiang province in China.  Both have horses, goats and sheep, green pastures and beautiful forests, but the food is better in China if you happen to favor lamb shish kabob, lamb ribs, lamb soup and minced lamb, garlic and ginger mixed with your stir-fried string beans and rice instead of roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy, and chocolate cake.

I decided to write about reference work for two reasons:  first, being in Wyoming caused me to think about my first job as a student reference desk assistant, an opportunity provided by the now retired University of Wyoming library director, Keith CottamCottam, then the Social Sciences librarian at Brigham Young University believed in the value of hiring social science students to work at the reference desk.  The second reason for thinking about reference work was the opportunity to read a recent OCLC report, Seeking Synchronicity: Revelations and Recommendations for Virtual Reference by Lynn Silipigni Connaway and Marie L. Radford http://www.oclc.org/reports/synchronicity/default.htm

The OCLC Report makes a number of very interesting points (many more than the following but these are the ones which interest me the most):

1.  When we talk about VRS, virtual reference service, in today’s highly personal Facebook environment, for VRS to be successful we should probably redefine it as a virtual relationship building service.

2.  While it is true that the ability to do quick Web searches has largely taken the place of the ready reference services previously provided by reference librarians, the research done for the OCLC report demonstrates that such services are still needed and used.

3.  The need for the reference interview lives on.  If the VRS staff member doesn’t understand the question, she/he can’t provide a timely/correct answer.

4.  Different generations of users view VRS differently.  Baby boomers can be put off by the technology and as a result generally are ignorant of VRS.  Millenials, on the other hand, want the speed of the Internet and dislike the slowness than can accompany the VRS interview and service provision process.

5.  For VRS, marketing matters a great deal.  In the digital haystack, finding the VRS needle is difficult if not impossible, and unless it is actively promoted it will die through disuse.

Based upon my own experience, I think there is a great deal of truth to the points made in the report.  While lacking virtual reference service experience, I have always been convinced that for real communication to happen between two people, both have to sense that what they are saying is of interest to the other person in the conversation.  This is as true of the librarian and patron relationship as it is of all other human relationships.  My first library boss Cottam understood this and so he had confidence that a research-oriented political science student at the desk could do as well or better than a MLS card-carrying vanilla librarian when working with similar students.  Of course, the more I knew about political science and beyond, the faster the answers flowed, and so getting paid to skim reference books which could help my own research and that of my fellow students was a double pleasure.  Subsequently, when I worked and supervised subject specialist librarians at three other universities, the value of this truth, hire smart librarians who were actually interested in the information needs of the patrons they served, cannot be underestimated.

I found the information about ready-reference service and the Web intriguing.  Today my 11-year-old granddaughter complained to me that her parents couldn’t explain things like why World War I began.  That she could make this complaint reflected several things:  most people just want to know things; if they don’t understand something they find it easiest to ask those within arm’s length, friends or parents or teachers, to give them the answer.  Librarians are simply too far away to be of much help.  Being foggy about who it was that got assassinated in the Baltic States and how that led to America entering the war, I pulled my iPhone out, Googled the question, and within a minute or so knew enough from Wikipedia to answer her question.  Yet, not all questions are so easily answered, and so being able to instantly communicate with a human being on the Web for additional help sounds good.

The information about the importance of the reference interview brought a smile to my lips.  When I was a graduate student at the University of Washington and a weekend undergraduate library reference librarian, I usually answered my own questions but when I didn’t know the answer I would go to the graduate Suzzallo Library reference counter to be served by a range of real professionals.  Once, however, I posed a question to a fresh-from-library-school librarian who seemed to have memorized innumerable questions designed to insure that he 100% understood my information needs.  At his request we stepped away from the desk so he could complete his interrogation without interruption.  After what seemed to be 10 or 15 minutes I wanted to strangle him, at least, or draw and quarter him if horses could be found.  By way of contrast, the beauty of the Google box is we can plop down whatever we know and then sift through the piles of stuff (of course seldom going to more than the second page of links) to find the answer to our question.  Yet, when the box fails, again the possibility of communicating with someone who knows something is intriguing.  Lest someone think I am casting doubt on the excellent University of Washington libraries, let me add that being able to go to its overloaded-with-books political science branch library and ask a question of its staff was a pleasure.

Being a slightly young baby boomer I can’t dispute the finding that the technology of navigating the path to the virtual reference service desk puts me off.  But I think I also share with the Millennials a distaste for the need to spend more than a minute telling my story.  I want the answer, not an opportunity to talk (that is what this column is for).  I refuse to read manuals and FAQ’s — my “read my mind and give me what I want” attitude frustrates my wife continuously.  Since that is not going to happen, I guess I will always be disappointed some of the time.  Maybe if at the top of the screen there was a “Help, give me a smart human” button I would have a chance at information happiness.

The OCLC report is well worth the read.  (At this point I have to divulge that as an OCLC Board member I am not exactly neutral and that I feel the need to plug the good things that OCLC does from time to time).  The authors began their research with an even split in focus groups between users/providers and non-users.  They then analyzed 850 randomly drawn transcripts of VRS sessions.  Based upon the information obtained in these ways they created an online survey and conducted nearly 300 telephone interviews.  They began their research with some fairly simple goals:  What is happening with VRS?  Is it worth improving and if so, how can that be done?  I think they did well on both counts.  Go to the OCLC Website and download it to your iPad.  It can be read at the beach or, if you have not read it by the fall, at the next boring meeting you are attending.

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