Thoughts on the Destruction of the Library Universe (or something like that)

Recently, there were two articles that got my attention and gave me all those warm science geek feelings on the inside that I get when I hear something extraordinary. The first was a report I heard on NPR’s Talk of the Nation: Science Friday which raises the possibility that the laws of physics are not the same all over the universe. Specifically, that the strength of electromagnetism (the force that holds molecules together and a mathematical constant here on Earth) is found to be stronger or weaker in different parts of the universe. This means that life as we know it could never happen elsewhere because the bonds would never form or never break. In essence, the constants of the laws of physics may not be constant at all beyond our own tiny corner of the universe.

If the first story I mentioned was about bending the rules of physics, this one would be breaking them. The second article is about a set of experiments in which neutrinos were found to be traveling faster than the speed of light. Considering that “[t]he idea that nothing can exceed the speed of light in a vacuum forms a cornerstone in physics – first laid out by James Clerk Maxwell and later incorporated into Albert Einstein’s theory of special relativity”, this would be some very big news indeed. While this is a long ways from being widely accepted within the scientific community, the mere notion creates wonder at what it means for the technology possibilities of the future. This is an exciting time to be alive.

In reflecting on these discoveries as it relates to the library world, the profession has certainly set forth a variety of constants (or standards or rules, whichever term you prefer). There are prevailing and controlling notions of what a library should offer its communities, how it should organize its materials, and what kinds of skills are required for the next generation of librarians. I can’t help but imagine that similar circumstances to the two scientific findings are present in the library world; that the things we like to think of as constants apply differently depending on the location and context or even go beyond the constraints that we believe exist.

Think about the constants (or some of the new constants) of the library and I want you to think about them in the context of your library. Do you really need a reference desk? Do you need to use AACR2 for cataloging? Can you measure your “output” on more than circulation, computer use, and attendance? Do you actually need a social media presence? Could you divert money away from the collection in favor of programming and services? Do you need more shelves and materials storage or couches, chairs, and benches? 

Even in limiting the scope of answers to just public libraries, I have a feeling that if you were to plot the answers there wouldn’t be a overarching consensus. Furthermore, I think it would show how absolutely fantastically diverse the public library community is (and I would daresay the same would prove true for other library types.) I contend that the constants we like to teach to the upcoming generation of librarians are actually highly contextual, remarkably situational, and possibly dangerously fixed. A lack of creativity will not kill off the profession as quickly as a lack of acknowledgement of the inherent flexibility within each library. No two libraries are truly the same, yet we try our damnedest to standardize and homogenize them through our approaches to collections, services, and design. Why is that?

I’m certain that I’ll get some pushback on this post in terms of people pointing to examples of libraries bucking or discarding something that is seen as a perfectly acceptable constant. I’m certain they exist and I applaud their efforts, but I still feel that the majority of libraries are woefully fixed to certain professional constants that may not be relevant, useful, or even pertinent. I’m looking forward to a deeper discussion in the comments.

The Reference Singularity

Last week, I was at my favorite watering hole with a group of my fellow librarians enjoying an evening of beer and socializing. During this gathering, Pete Bromberg was telling me about his upcoming presentation at ALA Annual, the RUSA President’s program “For the Love of Reference”. When I got home, I looked up the write-up in the online preliminary program. This passage caught my eye:

We want to explore the twin appeals of information discovery and serving users that drive the devotion to reference and readers’ advisory work.

I have written about reference before in terms out how the interviews could possibly be measured (and maybe re-labeling reference service as an “information concierge”), but I had not really considered examining the interaction itself and the implications of all of the possible outcomes. When I start to turn this idea over in my head, something really caught me. Imagine the reference interaction as this: an intersection of time and space in which you (as the librarian) have the ability to influence the resulting experience.

From the moment of inquiry, it presents a vast array of potential outcomes. We tend to think of these results in a binary fashion (the two potential endings of “Yes, we have that/Here is the answer” versus “No, we don’t have that/I cannot provide an answer.”), but the reality of outcome pathways is far more nuanced. The prevailing underlying thought that finding materials or information is good and that the opposite is bad is not just misguided, but completely wrong. I would contend that there is no such thing as a good or bad outcome; there is only good or bad reference (customer) service.

In my mind, good or bad reference experiences do not hinge on the resolution of the inquiry, but on the type of customer service a patron receives. How much does the result matter when the experience was unsavory or unpleasant versus engaging or personable? I don’t think there is much of a stretch required to prove this contention, either. There are examples within our own lives in which the overall experience of the encounter have made us more or less likely to use a service, store, contact, or material. While outcome may have bearing as to whether or not a person uses reference services in the future, I think it is a minor factor in comparison to the impressions formed from the encounter.

Even if we were to take the customer service aspect out of the experience and examine the interaction based all of the potential outcomes, I think that all but the most cynical observer would find the any potential result acceptable. For the inquiries that have their criteria met (in the form of an answer, material, or other solution), the librarian is successful in meeting the stated request. For the inquiries that do not have their criteria met, the librarian play a heavy role influencing the outcome pathways. For example, in a request for an author or book, this is where literature discovery occurs in finding other authors (ones that the patron may not have considered). In a request for research information, it turns into a search for a person or material that can answer beyond the walls of the library or the development of a new search strategy. This is the providence of serendipity, for sometimes in failure there are opportunities created for possibilities previously unknown or unconsidered.

Some might find the concept of serendipity as a convenient answer to those inquiries which are not resolved to the specifications of the patron. I would suggest that it is still an answer, just perhaps not in the form that the patron anticipated. And since all of the answers provided by reference services may not be simple and straightforward as outlined by the inquiry, it is the customer service during the transaction that matters more than the outcome itself.

For me, I know I can’t answer every item that comes across the reference desk. It’s simply not possible. However, the one thing I can control and do for each interaction is make it an exemplary experience. I treat them the way I would want to be treated if I was in their shoes: professional, personable, and completely engaged in their curiosity or need, no matter how big or small. I may not win every round of the reference desk question roulette, but I hope to win the patron over to try again in the future.

And that’s what I love reference.


(The title of the post is a play on the term mechanical singularity, in which the positions of a mechanism or machine results in subsequent behavior being unpredictable. I thought it was appropriate.)

The Body of Information

I just finished reading a New York Times article entitled “Abstract Thoughts? The Body Takes Them Literally” that came out a few days ago. Librarians certainly talk about how information is organized and how it can be accessed, and so I thought this article relates well in talking about how the brain (our ultimate end user) perceives information. It is part of an psychological field called embodied cognition.

Notable quote:

“How we process information is related not just to our brains but to our entire body,” said Nils B. Jostmann of the University of Amsterdam. “We use every system available to us to come to a conclusion and make sense of what’s going on.”

We talk about how information is presented all the time, but this brings it to a whole new level. Should we be designing the user experience with these types of body cues in mind? Does this have a viable use in the library at all?

The String Theory of Reference Interviews

Quite frankly, most of the reference desk interactions I have with patrons are pretty rote: material requests, program registration, basic library policy questions, and assistance with whatever piece of technology that is currently misbehaving. But it is the minority of questions and requests that keep my librarian heart warm, for they invoke the exchange known simply as “the reference interview”. This question and answer dialogue is what I live for in this profession; a chance to unravel a mystery, to make the highly unlikely possible, and to make the connection between a patron and their inquiry. Even then, the process is generally short lived. The majority of patrons offer enough clues so you can determine what they are looking for and either be able to deliver or inform them of alternatives.

In the past, I’ve taken a bunch of different approaches in explaining the art of reference interview to a non-librarian. The most common was likening it to a game of 20 Questions. While it has been a somewhat satisfactory explanation to me, all the exceptions and variations I inevitably end up throwing in make it feel clunky. Then, when I was out getting lunch today, I had a quasi-science nerd moment: the reference interview operates in five distinct dimensions. This immediately reminded me of string theory, a scientific concept which describes the universe in roughly ten dimensions. (Yes, this is an oversimplification, so read the Wikipedia article if you really want to know more specifics.) Within this theory, there are four observable dimensions: length, width, height, and time; the remaining six cannot be detected directly. With my idea of a five dimensional reference interview, there are similar four observable dimensions and one subjective dimension. As I enjoying likening concepts to one another, please indulge me as I use some of the same names to explain what I mean.

Photo by Rainer Ebert/Flickr

Length in a reference interview is the number of places searched. This can be both physical (different book sections & stacks) and virtual (online catalog, websites, databases, etc.). This can be a single place or numerous locations based on the obscurity of the inquiry and the success of the search. This is where our experience and expertise in accessing the best resource are put to the test; it can also be a learning experience as we find new tools to answer questions.

Width in a reference interview is the number of types of searches made. While most inquiries can be satisfied via author or title search, reference librarians know that subject topic questions can create multiple searches in order to attempt to check all potential resources. It is a test of our recollection of indexing and subject terms, pseudonyms and alternate spellings, and multiple ways of labeling the same thing that guide us through the different search types. It is an exercise in thinking laterally (no pun intended); some searches require us to approach the inquiry from multiple direction.

Height (or depth) in a reference interview is how specific the patron inquiry or end result is. Whether it is the temperature at a town at a specific date and time in 1956 (true story) or all of the books written by Jonathan Kellerman (another true story), it is the degree of detail required to completely answer the inquiry. Listening skills are forefront as the question is analyzed for specificity; interview (questioning) skills can gauge the level of detail in that the patron is expecting. This sort of “zeroing in” is necessary to tell us how far we need to go in our journey for the answer.

Time in a reference interview is the most straightforward concept; it is how much time is spent satisfying the patron inquiry. The duration of the search is highly mutable as it is directly influenced by outside factors (e.g. waiting patrons in person, on the phone, or online; time engagements like programs; other appointments). It requires a good sense of time management as to avoid making the patron feel rushed off with a seemingly incomplete answer or over aggravating patrons in line as they wait their turn. This fine sense of timing assures the patron that we have given their inquiry our full attention while not monopolizing our own time in face of waiting demands.

The fifth dimension of a reference interview is an intangible that I am simply labeling “X factor”; it is the overall patron experience. The best way I can visualize this dimension is through the use of color; specifically, how would a patron describe their experience on a color scale? Would it be a vibrant red, a chilly blue, an affable yellow, or perhaps a growing green? The patron experience of how their inquiries are handled shapes their attitude towards the library. Whether they are treated like an old friend, a troublesome interloper, or a valued customer, patrons take away a distinctive experience that will dictate future library use, the word of mouth to their immediate social circle, and overall sympathy or apathy towards the library. This important subjective aspect is what can turn library users into library advocates. We have the power to turn average and good interactions into excellent ones; we should always seize on these opportunities when presented.

Like string theory, I’m fairly certain there are other dimensions that could be surmised to exist based on this presented concept. (Perhaps it will show up in a future post.) But these five dimensions are a good start in providing a quantifiable means to measure the outcomes of a reference interview. Alone, one could think about how much (or how little) was performed within a dimension and how it related to the end result. Combined, they create a picture in full of the reference interview experience, a mosaic of our knowledge, tools, resources, and people skills. From here, the evolution of the modern reference experience begins.

And to think it only took some theoretical physics to find a more satisfying explanation of the reference interview. =P

Photo by the mad LOLscientist/Flickr