Thursday, March 27, 2008

What Does It Take to Be Good at Reference in the Age of Google?: A PLA Presentation by Joseph Janes

Joseph Janes, Associate Professor of the Information School at the University of Washington, Seattle, spoke today about "What Does It Take to Be Good at Reference in the Age of Google?" It is a natural topic for Janes, one he has discussed well many times before. The topic keeps changing and he keeps up. He was particularly entertaining and thought-provoking this morning. (It was the fifth time I have heard him speak. Does that make me a groupie?)

Janes began with an old quote, as he usually does. This time he quoted librarian Margaret Hutchins from 1944 to emphasize that good reference does three things for the client:
  • saves money
  • saves time
  • ensures possession of facts which by themselves they could not obtain
He came back to these numerous times through the presentation.

According to Janes, what Google and other search engines do is provide ready reference. The services is "free, quick, easy, good enough." He says that reference librarians lose on free and often lose on quick and easy, if the information need is really ready reference. Where the librarians win is at good enough. We do much better than good enough and we need to market that.

The professor said that as librarians we will continue to do ready reference, but it is not what we should emphasize in marketing. When we put out publicity saying we can find the capital of Nepal or the number of seats in a stadium, people interpret that as the limit of our abilities and think "I can do that with Google." Instead we should be saying what Margaret Hutchins said:

We save you time and money and find information that you can not find on your own.

Janes said that we are seriously challenged by the search engines for the attention of the public, but we do have many strengths. Librarians beat them at the following:
  • gathering
  • selecting
  • evaluating
  • deciding
  • understanding
  • helping
  • depth
  • accuracy
Librarians rule when it comes to print and fee-based information. Google is just an ad agency with a search agency attached.

What is most essential for librarians is that they do good reference interviews, whether they be face-to-face, telephone, virtual, IM, email, or whatever. Search engines will never do this as well, though they are trying to establish question services. The fact that they keep trying indicates they know that are still lacking.

Janes says that we must be the best users of the search engines, knowing all the Google tricks, such as inurl: and filetype: and view:timeline. We need to learn to use the slidebars in Live Academic and Yahoo.

The public library is at a great advantage, as it is the only point in many communities for the citizens to connect to the Internet. We should leverage this to our political advantage. Let people know how happy we are that they come for our computers. Never put up unnecessary blocks.

We should also remember that many of the people who ask questions only do so because they have failed to find an answer themselves. They are as a last resort asking a stranger in public. Other professions have private offices for giving out information.

Janes said again that print collections are our strength and we should market them. This advantage will fade in it time, but we still have it.

Librarians need to be tool makers. He still likes creating virtual pathfinders. It is one of the ways we add value to our collections. He also said that we need to take over Wikipedia instead of crabbing about it.

Near the end he said that as good as we are in person we have to be even better online. Our websites have to be compelling, effective, and high quality. Our virtual reference and IM need to be great. If not, we will be quickly cut off.

He finished by saying that librarians are first among the professions. If we include archivists in our midst, we keep the culture civilized. The human record is in our care. We are essential.


Anonymous said...

Just to let you know that even though you posted this in 2008, it's still useful. I'm looking for stuff for a ppt for a job interview and this gives me some compelling ideas to lead with. Thank you!

Liza said...

My favorite thing he said has got to be "He also said that we need to take over Wikipedia instead of crabbing about it." SO TRUE! Let's be proactive. I love the idea of a group of librarians virtually "storming the citadel". We should all be wikipedia contributors and editors. Our students and patrons are going to use it whether or not we are there!