Are we the friendly produce consultants of the information age?
After offering reference help to a student the other day and having it refused, I had what I can only call an evil thought. I’d like to share this evil thought with you now, at the risk having an evil influence on library discourse. Sometimes it takes a devil’s advocate, though, to inspire work on the foundations.
Imagine if you will, walking into your local supermarket to buy ingredients for tonight’s dinner. The produce section is first. In a prominent location, in front of the fruit, is a middle aged woman sitting at a desk, under a sign that says “Reference.” She looks at you with a pleasant smile and eyelids raised to communicate approachability. You walk up to her skeptically, out of curiosity, and she speaks first, saying, “May I help you?”
Your natural response is, “Oh, no, I’m just here to shop for supper – sorry to bother you.”
She puts a hand on your arm to stop you from leaving, saying, “No, that’s what I’m here for, to help you select the best produce for your needs. What are you planning to cook?”
“Well, just a stir-fry – but really, I’ve got a shopping list, and I’d like to just do my own shopping.”
She says, “Wait a moment! Not to imply anything about your knowledge of produce, but I am an expert, and I can help you make better produce purchase decisions than you would likely make for yourself.”
“(Ahem) Ok, well, could you just point me to the snow peas?”
“Of course – yes, they’re over there next to the mushrooms.”
“Thanks very much,” you answer, and continue with your shopping, wondering what kind of supermarket you’re shopping in.
As an analogy to reference service, this is obviously evil, because library users do understand what the reference desk is for, expect it to be there, and appreciate our assistance. But most reference librarians are also aware of how many library patrons seem to have no need for them. On my campus of 10,000 students, I know that only a small number make use of the services of reference librarians. Last year one student assumed that the desk was there for surveillance purposes, that the person sitting at it was a security guard, watching the students to make sure they didn’t do anything wrong. The student I offered to help the other day first felt uncomfortable accepting my help because she didn’t want to waste my time, and then didn’t want it because she felt she could do a better job responding to her own information needs than I could, and more efficiently. I have no way of knowing that she was wrong, not having the opportunity to do more of a reference interview and lacking knowledge of her own research strategy. It does seem that students and many members of the public today consider themselves more self-sufficient in their information seeking than they did a generation ago. So the devil’s question is, how unlike an unwanted vegetable consultant is the reference librarian of today, really? What do you think?