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Reference Symposium at the U of Minnesota

Today was the Reference Symposium at the University of Minnesota, and may I just say, inviting a bunch of librarians to a conference and then making them pay for wireless access is SO 1.0! (One of my coworkers paid for the temporary log-in and the rest of us mooched off of hers. So I’m writing this in EndNote, and I’ll be copying it into my blog when I get back to work this evening.)

First up was the indefatigable Stephen Abram. [Update: he links to his PowerPoint here.] As usual, he had a lot to say, was witty, and only a little bit crude (he was being very careful). :) But he kind of started out on the wrong foot with me and it took me a while to get back into the flow. See, basically the first thing he said is that he knows some people need to write in order to learn, but he wanted us just to listen and know that his powerpoint would be up online soon (I’ll link to it when it is). Well, there I was sitting in the third row SMACK dab in front of him with my computer open trying to get online so I could blog… and he was assuming that I was “just” taking notes. Hmmm. Assuming that note-taking is just a memory device is very 1.0, but he’s a smart guy and he’ll learn…

Anyway, he talked about a lot of the things we’ve been thinking and blogging about lately, Second Life Library 2.0, Web 2.0 services, and of course…Millennials. (I’m beginning to think that it’s not a “real” library conference if at least half the sessions spend minutes on end cataloging how different Millennials are from the rest of us. This is not helpful!) But a couple of things really stood out to me. First, we as a profession are unclear and uncomfortable with our epistemological position on barriers. Second, collective intelligence really is the future (steak knives, here we come!). And third, brain scans and eyeball tracking research on different demographic groups is COOL and much more useful than complaining about those techy kids these days. (I’ll only cover the first highlight here.)

So what’s up with boundaries? Stephen began his talk by criticizing traditional reference desks, comparing them to pharmaceutical counters. Unlike at a pharmacy, we shouldn’t be thinking about how to be imposing and authoritative. “Do we really want to be like those people who are pushing drugs?” he asks? So barriers are bad… I got it. But then, a couple hours later, he begged us to please use anything other than Google when helping patrons because “we need to look like we know something different.” So… barriers are good? I’m sure I’m missing something, and I wanted to ask him to clarify this, but he went so far over his time that he used up ALL of the next presentation’s time as well, so there wasn’t time for questions. So, if you read this, Stephen, what’s the connection?

I also appreciated that he couched his discussion of Library 2.0 in terms of Ranganathan’s principle that states that the library is a growing organism and always has been. I firmly believe that L2 isn’t fundamentally different from what we’re doing and have been doing.

Published inProfessional Development


  1. Stephen Abram Stephen Abram

    Hi Iris:

    Thanks for listening to the session. I’ll need to get a bigger watch. I was really embarrassed that I went so far over.

    If you’d approached me with your question over the day I could have clarified right away but it’s probably more helpful to do it here.

    I wasn’t making a point against taking notes. I especially appreciate the bloggers who take notes at every session now. And yes I do know the difference between a laptopper and someone desperately going nuts in the front row trying to capture a list from a PPT slide that could easily be transferred to a thumb drive after the talk. (I usually give out 3-4 copies to USB’s after every speech now.) I worry that people can be stressing themselves out trying to court report speeches and missing the flow of the points – but that could just be me and my preferences.

    On the reference desk vs being seen to use Google, these are very different types of barriers. The reference desk – when it’s HUGE and it usually is, are threatenng to many users. They’re too big, too imposing and too unapproachable. They’re closer to judges in court and pharmacy counters than places where we find help that’s friendly and easy to access. Some libraries are moving to information an learning commons experiments to good effect. Others I see have built walls of books, signs, etc. on top of the desk and only one place as a small two foot section where users could stand for service along a desk that was at least 12 feet wide. My point was to look at these desks as users rather than as librarians. The view is different.

    Using Google on the reference desk isn’t a barrier as much as an image we’re projecting. It’s not a physical barier but it has a psychological impact. Most users already know about and use Google. Even if we’re using it better than them with special techniques, it’s not going to be immediately obvious to them, if ever. When I watch reference desks (and I do often) the usual response from the user is a frustrated “I already tried that” and an expectation that they were going to get better help from the reference librarian. They may actually be getting better help but perception is reality. Imagine how we feel when we look for a shirt in size medium and the store clerk insists on looking at the rack we just searched through. Do we feel respected? Do we expect them to have a better technique? Is our time being saved (Ranganthan)? So, my suggestion was that we position ourselves more quickly by using something as good or better than Google that increases the user’s perception of us as experts with special skills. If anyone can suggest a way to make using Google first project improve the user’s perception, then tell us. I see some reference librarians talking as they search to inform and teach the user what they’re doing differently. In general, I watch the user’s face while the librarian looks at the screen – the users are often thin lipped and projecting an annoyance in their faces vs interest and engagement. I suspect they’re feeling patronized whether that’s the intent or not. At least that’s what it looks like.

    It was a fun day. I hoped I scratched the edges of some folks assumptions. That’s where we’ll find the future.


  2. Iris Iris

    Hi Stephen,

    I completely agree that perception is reality, which is exactly why the fortress/reference desk idea is so counter productive. (In my previous job they’d just remodeled and deliberately chosen the fortress! One of the many reasons I took the job I have now is that they’d just remodeled and chosen the complete opposite architecture.) I also agree that most times the students coming to my reference desk won’t be able to immediately recognize what I’m doing differently from what they’ve been doing. But I think that it would be highly productive for us to think carefully about and articulate our thoughts the function of barriers in our epistemology. I use the reference desk vs. Google example as a study in extremes because it piqued my interest and got me thinking about the similarities and differences between the two kinds of barriers.

    The reference desk is a physical barrier that intimidates before the user actually makes it to the librarian. Using an unfamiliar interface first puts a psychological and emotional barrier between you and the user. It says, “I’m different; I’m better; we are not the same; I’m over here and you’re over there.”

    And yet (and I agree with you’re conclusion, here) this somehow allows the user to learn from you. I’ve had excellent success teaching database searching skills and then saying, “Now let’s use the exact same techniques on Google.” So there’s something valuable in this type of barrier. Something about it resets the brain, inspires trust, and allows learning.

    I’m highly intrigued by the similarities and differences between these barriers. I haven’t really thought about this particular part of social and psychological behavior yet, so I’m having a hard time differentiating between the superficial and the meaningful differences and similarities. Is it superficial or meaningful that one “intimidation” (by which I mean, “emphasizing difference in order to inspire trust/awe/respect”) happens before the user approaches the desk and the other happens after he or she approaches? Is it simply the degree of intimidation that’s meaningful?

    Oh, an by the way, great talk. I didn’t mind a bit that you went over time.

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