Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Practice makes the profession

The word is out: the kids can't search.  This is something we librarians knew for a long time now. And we should know: librarians are experts at searching. That's what we tell ourselves. We're experts!

As those who have read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers know, expertise is understood to come from 10,000 hours of dedicated practice.

And this is why I'm worried.

You see, I remember what it was like to work in a library *just* before the explosion of use of the World Wide Web. I had the privilege of working at the Periodicals Desk at the Toronto Reference Library in 1997. In those days, we would have two or three librarians working the desk and that desk would regularly have line-ups sometimes up to twenty people deep.

Now this is going to sound quaint and old-fashioned, but this was a time when you could develop a sense of a library's collection from working at a reference desk. A good reference librarian knew a library's treasures and the secrets it could bring up. Reference librarians were good and there were some among us who were maestros of reference work.

And for most libraries, that time has passed.

Over the last ten years, the traffic at our library's reference desk has dropped. Significantly.  In the past academic year, the library staff of my place of work answered half the questions at our desks compared to the levels of 2003/2004. In spite of being surrounded by students working away on library computers, I have spent a four hour desk shift at my library and in that time only answered three questions.

And this is why I am worried.

I would like to make the case that not only our search expertise came from the practice of the reference desk, I believe that the resulting tenets of information literacy also came from this labour. Because librarians were exposed to the common problems across the disciplines, they were able to see patterns that could not be seen by individual teachers. It has always been clear to librarians that students don't have an innate ability to understand genre, that they lack knowledge of the scholarly publishing cycle, and that they don't understand the importance of language choice in search.

Without the practice of regular searching, how will our expertise of search evolve?

This lack of practice is one of the reasons why I think many librarians have outdated concepts of regarding searching. Boolean searching makes sense when it can used to create a result set that is manageable and comprehensible by a reader. But nowadays, when even the complicated nested boolean field searches using defined vocabulary still results in sets of the hundreds of thousands of records, then our strategies (and perhaps our tools) need to change. It's time we take the time to understand how relevancy is generated.

When I started this post, I intended to end this piece with an argument that user-experience work could be seen as a possible extension of our practice to ground our work.  The connection came early this morning as I read this post and recognized some of my own motivations in my current UX web work.

Watching statistics behind the scenes of a website can be addictive. You don’t control them, directly, but you can endlessly tweak and investigate your data, experimenting with better and brighter strategies for luring visitors.

Playing with a website like this is a kind of game, made all the more compelling by how much you care about the outcome. You want your site to thrive. You want its numbers to go on increasing, for ever—one of the most universal and powerful of all the dynamics involved in digital play.

But, I'm personally dissatified with this line of thought. First, as important as it is to make accessible, understandable and useful library websites, reducing our  communities to just clicks and pings in aggregate cannot be an end unto itself. It's just too dehumanising a practice -- which is one of the reasons why SEOs always seem so scummy.

And I don't mean to be even more of a downer, but I'm afraid that even good user-experience work grounded in the values of librarianship is also under threat.

Why? I am of the opinion that libraries' continuing enthusiam for propietiary library systems and discovery layers, mean that we are removing our ability to change, test, develop, and improve how relevancy is defined in our search tools.

Why is this ability so important? Well, these propietary systems challenge some of our very values of our profession.  Why is it even acceptable that EBSCO Discovery Service returns results from their databases first before the results sets of their commercial competitors?  We would never allow this sort of promotional weighting in the print manifestation of these works - it would be unethical.  So why do libraries invest in such services when alternatives that allow transparency and even the ability to change the relevancy of search results exist? Sadly, I think it's because the mechanics of how searching works has already fallen out of most of the librarian's practice and their understanding.

The seed of this this post was planted sometime over the course of hours sometime this past this weekend as I was doing the physical labour of list making. I had given myself a challenge of creating a list of Massey Lectures in a format that could be reused by other librarians. By doing so, I created a list of almost fifty books using Evergreen, Bibliocommons, Amazon, RefWorks, Zotero, the Open Library, and a text editor. I probably spent too time on this particular project but when I finally finished this work, I found that had a much stronger understanding of about these services and could feel their relative strengths and weaknesses. The work itself taught me.

I finished that project this Monday. On Tuesday, yesterday, I met up with a faculty member in the History Department who asked me questions about how best to present the work of over 1500 citations on a web site.  I am getting more of these types of questions. Other librarian colleagues are now meeting and working with faculty who are suddenly recognising that preparing, preserving, organizing, and presenting collections and other digital work requires a professional understanding that they lack.

Sometimes when you tell a person that you are a librarian, they respond in a very odd way. They say, "wow, I'd love to read books all day". I used to think (but never say) "what a stupid comment" but now I don't think that comment is quite so dumb anymore. I think that the people who say such things just think that the way to understand a library is through the reading of books.  Of course, that's not how a librarian makes sense of a library. But there is a truth in what's being said: the librarian makes sense of the collection by interacting with it.

With fewer and fewer questions being asked at desks, how are librarians going to make sense of our collections now? The future of our profession very well might depend on the answer.


Lisa said...

Interesting post and I agree with lots of it - particularly the issues with commercial discovery layers which I consider to be hugely unethical. Not the vendors I mean, they are just doing what they do - but I think it's unethical for us to not build vendor agnostic solutions ourselves. I think it's incumbent upon us to do so as librarians. But I disagree that reference work is the be all and end all of interaction with search or with collections. In fact, it's working with search technologies and collections on a very superficial level for the most part. Your Massey project is a role model for more intense engagement with both search tools and content. Our work here at York building the Vufind project meant that a lot of librarians were engaged in talking about how search would work, the fields being indexed etc - which is as good a reason as any to advocate for DIY ILS's. And lastly, as I have transitioned into doing more and more of my own research as part of my job, I get to approach the library like an end user and learn a lot about how it works (or doesn't) as well as getting a significant interaction not only with particular collections but with other faculty researchers who discuss their issues/joys with me in the process like an insider. In other words, and this is a bit provocative on purpose I guess... but I think that the mistake of the reference desk service in libraries was the view that academic librarians were what a colleague of mine calls 'fungible' ... interchangeable. This hurt us and it hurts the users too. We learned a little bit about search across a lot of platforms, but we learned very little about what was going on in our own disciplines and we became searchers disconnected from research. Anyway, all of this to say you are right - we need to understand how search works - but I think you can learn about search from other activities than just the ref desk. And I'd like the 21st century ref desk, if it survives, to be about more than search.

Mita said...

"But I disagree that reference work is the be all and end all of interaction with search or with collections. "

I didn't mean to imply such a thing. I have some ideas about how librarians can interact with users and collections in meaningful ways but I haven't got all the nuances worked out yet. Still steeping.