at The Evergreen State College

Social Expectations of Librarians

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The librarian used to be an authoritative and distanced individual, one either behind a desk or moving library materials around. Now, the librarian is more likely to be expected to act as an on-call information research crisis fixer. Librarians are accessible by phone, e-mail, and chat; even the Library of Congress website has chat functionality[1][2]. A rising trend is for librarians to respond to text messages from patrons who have questions, thereby continuing the cycle of more information exchange in less depth[3].

The reference librarian has historically served as intermediary between library user and reference materials. Through the reference interview, a librarian familiarizes himself or herself with what the patron needs (as this varies with who the patron is, ie. high school student versus hospital doctor) and what is actually being asked for by said patron. Later, the librarian presents to the patron a summarized collection of information pertinent to the question asked. One might call it a slower, more personalized (more accurate?) cycle similar to the Google search.

Therein the problem lies: more library users just stick to Google or other search engines to get Internet-based information about their topic of interest. The librarian is called in when the computer is not sufficient, and even then it is more common that the patron's question will be "what do I do to make the search engine find what I want," not "What information can you find me about X?" Instead of acting as intermediary between researcher and information, the librarian is turning into last-ditch enabler between researcher and search engine.

The consequence, of course, is that researchers are not necessarily getting to the best information, as they really only access the information that search algorithms return. In essence: breadth, not depth.

Roles will continue to change as librarians adapt (or not) to new technologies and how patrons use them.


Reference Interviews