the truth about reference
It’s been quite a month in my personal life, and no wonder I never got back to filling out that last truthberry picking post. I see some where I have no memory of what I found interesting at the time. But, others, like Sheehan’s recent ALA Techsource post on AI and reference, are still relevent and worth building on, as other insights and starting points toward my big research interest — the reapplication of the reference interview to interorganizational communication/information seeking — have come about since then.
It is also ARL stat collection time. I serve on team monitoring a shared email account for e-resources troubleshooting questions (think of it as a distance cousin of virtual reference) and annually question whether I am supposed to count these as reference transactions. For your information, ARL defines a reference transaction as:
…an information contact that involves the knowledge, use, recommendations, interpretation, or instruction in the use of one or more information sources by a member of the library staff. The term includes information and referral service. Information sources include (a) printed and non-printed material; (b) machine-readable databases (including computer-assisted instruction); (c) the library’s own catalogs and other holdings records; (d) other libraries and institutions through communication or referral; and (e) persons both inside and outside the library. When a staff member uses information gained from previous use of information sources to answer a question, the transaction is reported as a reference transaction even if the source is not consulted again.
I’ve always held, and our head of reference agrees, that we should count them. But as distance cousins, the majority of questions we get are referrals from the real reference folks who are, thus, already counting them. This year we may have more transaction to count as we have begun putting our face (our email address) out there a little to assist more directly with things like persistent linking, when resources are on order (and not yet available), and when we know there are likely to be problems with e-resources. The latter two actually pick up the slack for what our ERM ought to be doing for us — but that’s another post. So, what I ultimately mean to point out here, is two-fold:
1) technical services libraries are increasingly access service librarians (our email troubleshooting group is a concrete example).
2) as a result (and in addition to our counting transactions in this new role), we ought to look at the ARL definition above more closely.
My guess is traditional reference or public services librarians translate these transactions primary as a service to users wherever they are — as in “the library as place” and that place is inside and outside the library (in the Union, dorms, faculty offices, or even via email, IM, social media). By seeking these reference stats of their colleagues, traditional reference librarians do concede that they aren’t the only transactors with our users. But, I wonder how many interpret that definition to apply to transactions with people inside the library who work there? This internal reference transaction among colleagues, I argue, is an activity technical services librarians have long been doing but perhaps not historically thought of as a reference transaction. Some examples of this I’ve thought of might be when we are helping reference staff to answer more technical questions (maybe we should count these twice!), when we help a subject liaison by pulling together reports for collection management, and maybe even when problem solving organizationally and seeking information about each others’ workflows in order to put a bigger picture together.
As for and how to go about answering my research question, this leads me back to Sheehan’s post and whether a direct reapplication of the theory behind the reference interview is the way to go, or whether so much changed both in reference (going virtual) and technical services (going reference) that a new theory is needed. In addition to my own fascination with AI, the post connects to a debate about 2.0 vs. f2f communication that has stalled me in starting my research. The post, specifically, led me to ask this question: has the stigma of ‘why’ questions in the reference interview (see Dervin & Dewedney, 1986) diminished as a result of more open sharing in social media? Or is it (as Sheehan seems to point to) precisely because it’s online that this openness in social media occurs, but the f2f human interaction still requires the finesse of something like neutral questioning?
Other questions I’ve mulled over, related to the ARL stats definition, are whether there are too fundamental of differences in the reference transaction (and the use of reference interview skills) when the players are our working peers than when between librarians and students, faculty, or community users. I’d be interested to know what you think and suggestions you may have for methodological starting points.
Comments below or emails to atruthbrarian[at]gmail[dot]com are welcome.
Dervin, B., & Dewdney, P. (1986). Neutral questioning: A new approach to the reference interview. Reference Quarterly, 25 (4), 506-513.