Jeffrey Pomerantz of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has written a thought-filled article about reference librarians helping reference librarians called "Collaboration as the Norm in Reference Work." It is in the new Fall 2006 issue of Reference & User Services Quarterly. He describes the past and forecasts the future of collaboration, focusing on technology toward the end of the article.
I enjoyed some of his observations, such as this statement on page 46:
"What sets the reference transaction apart from an ordinary conversation is that the participants attempt to achieve common ground on a topic about which neither may possess any knowledge."
How true! I can think of countless times when students arrive asking about terms assigned by their teachers. They have no ideas and I have to start fishing for circumstantial clues. "What class are you taking?" "What subject are you studying?" "Do you have a copy of your assignment?" "Were there other terms on the assignment?" These can sometimes be times when a second reference librarian come in handy.
It can be even harder. Pomerantz mentions cases when the person asking a question is only the agent of some one else who needs the information. School assignments come to mind again. "My son is at football practice and he needs five books and three magazine articles on an actor from India."
The author talks about in-building collaboration, which was the only direct form of multi-mind reference before modern communication methods, such as the telephone. It is still quite prevalent. At Thomas Ford we sometimes have two staff members at the reference desk in the evening. If it is slow and someone has given us a challenging question, we may have both working on the question, one finding book or online information, while the other pulls magazine articles. Our clients leave feeling they got red carpet treatment, and we enjoyed the collaborative search.
In much of the article, Pomerantz examines remote collaboration. He tells the histories of The Exchange in RQ and later RUSQ and the Stumpers listserv. He goes on to discuss asynchronous and synchronous digital reference services, virtual reference, and instant messaging. In discussing whether digital reference services will ultimately succeed, the author says the following:
"...just as a librarian has one chance to impress a user before that user makes a judgment about her willingness to return to that librarian, so too does a digital reference service have one chance to impress a user before that user makes a judgment about her willingness to return to that service."
When there are digital alternatives, users may soon turn to other options if they are not satisfied.
Pomerantz discusses privacy as a consideration in collaboration, insisting that reference librarians should have clients' permission before bringing other librarians into interviews or sending the question to remote colleagues. Client deserve confidentiality and might not want their situations discussed.
Pomerantz concludes that we are in a time of innovation and transformation and that we should try new methods of collaboration. Individual services and reference work in general will benefit.
Pomerantz, Jeffrey. "Collaboration as the Norm in Reference Work." Reference & User Services Quarterly, (fall 2006) vol. 46, no. 1, pp. 45-55.