"Well if you don't have what I'm looking for, what's the use of you?"
I've been dreading words like these for some time, and the other day, I heard them. I'm pleased to say that I was able to help the upset student who said these words, and afterwards, he was very appreciative. Some people are just more effusive, whether they're expressing gratitude or irritation. I am grateful for what happened because it made these things that I've been thinking about for the past few years seem that much more real.
People (and I guess here I'm talking about people in their late 20s and early 30s who seem to be the bulk of my business school students) have gotten out of the habit of using the library as the first place to go to find information. Many users have a strong perception that most of time, they'll be able to find what they need without using the library - whether as a place or as a collection of electronic resources. I'm not going to address the accuracy of that perception because that will get me side-tracked and is best left for a different post, but today I'm just accepting the existence of this perception as a fact.
The consequence of this perception is that most of my users use the library as a last resort, when they have tried searching for something and have failed.
This is a huge change from the pre-internet days, which I can just vaguely remember from my first years as an undergraduate, where research meant using a library in some shape or form, most often going into the library.
Searching often contains plenty of traps and deadends, which can make it quite frustrating at times. I think that this is a constant - the specific sorts of research frustrations might be different today than they were in 1990 - but the effect of the pitfalls is the same, to cause irritation.
The difference is that in 1990, the searcher was most often inside the library when encountering these difficulties, and from there, it was not such a leap to walk up to the reference desk and ask for help. Once as a student I remember feeling a little embarrassed because a diligent librarian noticed that I looked confunded (and I use this Harry Potter word deliberately, I think that all searchers are vulnerable to this) and asked if I needed any help. I said, "No, I'm fine thanks" and pretended to look at a journal for a few minutes longer and then walked out of the library. Later on I learned that I could have handled that better :) No, it wasn't a perfect system, and I certainly don't wish to return to it, but the library was optimized for this way of searching and supported it quite well.
Compare that with today. Our users are pretty much on their own at the beginning. Maybe they're lucky and they found something kinda ok early on, because if they didn't they're in trouble. The search techniques of amateurs (I use this word without being condescending - I am a proud to be an amateur blogger/writer and think that professionals ignore or look down upon the amateur at their peril, particularly in the area of search) seem particularly subject to diminishing returns. In this context, I think that professional searching can have three strengths -
1. A better understanding of how effective searches work, leading to better decisions about when a strategy should be persevered with, modified or abandoned.
2. A bigger bag of tricks - greater knowledge of the different search engines, proprietary databases, web resources, being familiar with the complexity and power (sometimes) of advanced search interfaces, chasing the target from sideways etc.
3. Respect for the quarry - sometimes the hunt may not be easy, sometimes the hunt may even fail. If it were always easy, there definitely would never be any need for professional hunters & gatherers of information.
(Before I end this digression, I just want to emphasize that wasn't an exhaustive list, but the other things wouldn't be relevant to this post)
Anyway, as I was mentioning, most potential library users search on their own, without going through the library or dealing with librarians until it's too late. It's very easy for somebody to waste an hour or two on an unproductive search on Google. Then out of desperation, that same person might try the library's electronic collection and will get even worse results - because a) it's so easy to muck up that crucial step of which particular database you try first and b) the search techniques which will work ok in Google generally don't work well in the proprietary databases provided by the library.
If such a person does approach the library reference desk after this ordeal, they deserve better than to be subjected to a reference interview which assumes that they've hardly thought about their subject at all. I'm not against the reference interview per se, but the sort of interview which worked in 1990 is not what we need in the twenty-first century. The whole interview-research transaction is stilted and obsolete (unless you're a special librarian and your job is to do research for somebody else, with no pretensions that you're teaching research skills). I think it better to sit with somebody, listen to them, see how they search, gauge their technique and then suggest an alternative which will point them towards what they're looking for as well as demonstrate a better way of searching which they can use in future searches.
I'll end this by restating the situation. In the past 20 years, the way that people look for information has been turned on its head. How have libraries responded to this? For the most part, it's all been by improving the library resources - we've worked hard to improve online catalogues (yes, they're not great, but they used to be much worse), create websites, provide access to electronic resources such as journals, directories and databases, and more recently, things like federated search. But improved resources alone are not enough to stop people from wondering what we're useful for. While paying attention to improving resources, we've neglected services. Before, a well-maintained collection was the service. It's different now because people have access to tremendous information resources, what they're lacking is someone to help them use these resources effectively to find what they're looking. What is needed a fundamental repositioning of what librarians are about, we provide services to help people find, evaluate and use information effectively. Maintaining a collection and providing resources are still relevant, but only in so far as they support the main purpose.