Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Why Do This Thing We Do?

There's been quite a pause since my last post, mostly due to personal life events taking center stage in my free time. However, my resolution for the new year was to write at least one entry on this blog per week; I'm only five posts behind so far.

My thoughts this week have been focused on Why? Why am I in this profession? I will spare you all the incessant omphaloskepsis that usually follows such a query and move to a better one: What are the parts of public librarianship that excite me? Why do I care, and why should anyone else?

For the past year or so, what's excited me is the technology. I'm not a technoevangelist in the ways that Michael Stephens or Beth Gallaway are, but I do believe the ever-increasing pervasiveness of tech is a trend that can't be ignored. Librarians still have the rep of "knowing everything" and that's one of our greatest assets right now. We're still relevant because folks believe that we know a little bit about it all. However, for many (and not just older) librarians, technology is only a step removed from magic in its esotericism. We can't afford to remain ignorant in this way, not any of us. No, we don't have to have a comprehensive knowledge of CSS, RSS or AJAX, but we need to at least know enough to find the right shelf range for more information, or to purchase the books that our patrons want to read.

Patrons come in and ask us questions: How do I fill out this form online? How do I save my resume to this flash drive? Why can't I connect my laptop to your wireless? Do you have any books about MySQL? A good reference interview means that we use creative questioning and our own experience to determine what will satisfy the patron's needs. How can we do that if we have no context? Worse yet, how many patrons do we lose because they decide in one interaction that we can't provide what they want from us?

At another level, having this knowledge ourselves means that we can educate our patrons directly, through workshops and in-the-moment training. A gentleman who has come to me a few times asking for NY Times articles in an electronic format was astounded to learn that a free web-based RSS feed aggregator would push content to him, and he could choose what to keep and how to organize it. I walked him through setting up a Bloglines account and sent him off, perfectly happy that I'd given him the tools to achieve his goals more efficiently. I satisfied his larger need, rather than just answering his question.

Technology also has the potential to expand our reach far beyond the limitations of our buildings. I touched on much of this in my article about Internet Librarian, but it's only becoming more obvious to me. Last week, I explained to my boss what purpose email reference serves, and refined this thinking through a later conversation: as a distance-reference tool, IM and email work perfectly in tandem. The patron begins the interaction through one or the other mode, then the librarian can ask clarifying questions in return. IM provides a more streamlined experience in this regard, but it can be done with a few well-constructed email messages as well. Sarah kept asking: "Well, why couldn't she just come into the library and ask us?" Time, travel, sloth and lethargy – all of these are reasons why, and all of them are valid.

I will now state that I am not one of the doom-sayers who believe that the library is obsolete, or even in serious danger. However, in some very fundamental ways, what our patrons want from us and expect us to be able to provide is changing, and the longer it takes our profession to react, the more we'll have to do to catch up.

One thing you'll notice about my blogging style is that I tend to work things out as I go along. There will be more on this idea, but in the interest of freshness, I'm hitting "publish."


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