Librarians as Context Professionals

If I spent all my time on the information desk at work searching Google, I would admit that the librarianship was dying out. If the world’s information was indeed at everyone’s fingertips, easily found and readily available, what would be the point of having an occupation whose major purpose is to help people navigate infospace? Machines have replaced humans in many fields since the industrial revolution, and it seems that according to popular opinion, the keyword search is replacing the reference interview. While I admit to bias, my perspective continues to be that the keyword search does not supersede the reference librarian. Understanding context – the individuality of the questioner, the wiggle room in language – requires a comprehension that is, thus far, unique to humans.

Certainly it would be foolish to believe that the reference librarian can compete with the keyword search for all types of queries. Ready-reference questions, or “a reference question that can be answered by a reference librarian in one or two minutes by providing a fact or piece of information found in a single source…” (ODLIS) are obviously easy to answer using search engines. The birth year of a well-known figure, for example, does not require much sleuthing. As long as the the asker has some information literacy and knows the approximate answer, he can determine the veracity of the search engine’s results without much difficulty. Likewise, there is little search sophistication necessary to find directory assistance information (commercial phone numbers and addresses); for large and/or saavy businesses, one can simply type the name into any search engine and find the required info on the results page or by clicking through. As long as the searcher has access to the world wide web, these basic searches can be handled by most beginners without help. It is when queries become more complex that the aid of a librarian becomes useful.

The number one benefit of search engines is that they are easy; you type in a word or a string of words and results are returned instantly. It is when this simplicity backfires (for example, when your search term has been hi-jacked by a boy band’s name) that it is useful to explore context. Three questions give a good sense of how most questions should be approached:
1. Who is in need of the answer?
2. Exactly what type of information is needed?
3. What will the information be used for?

Consider a child who is conducting a search for a school project. She needs basic information on Abraham Lincoln to be incorporated into a speech and a poster. Surely, typing ‘abraham lincoln’ into a search engine would yield plenty of results, but would it be wise to pull from the first few? Perhaps it would be time-effective, but being in grade school might make it difficult for her to determine the credibility of a source. Likewise, academic honesty is not so clear-cut when copy-and-pasting from Wikipedia (usually the first result for famous names) is so easy. As a librarian, my first instinct in this case might not be to use a search engine. Instead, I would guide her to the children’s section where the books that will carry good information and would be more appropriate for her age-level than most (adult) sites online. If we didn’t have anything on-hand, I would find and print an age-appropriate biography of the President. In this case, the topic isn’t obscure, but by knowing the context, the librarian realizes that age is a major factor in limiting the search.

Another real-life scenario is an older lady who approached me in need of information about cancer. By actually conducting an interview, I found out what she already knew about cancer and that, in fact, it was her brother that was just diagnosed. Since she was just beginning her research, I determined that basic printouts from MedlinePlus and MayoClinic were adequate. However, in addition to these printouts, I ascertained that she was not at all sure how to respond to her brother’s diagnoses so I selected a few guides for relatives of the patient. As she flipped through the latter books, she exclaimed, “These are just what I needed!” In exploring the context of a search, a librarian can read into the emotional subtext of a query, providing information that may never have made it into a search box.

In our final example, a man is searching for the the origin of a much-used quote. He balks when told that a search engine would produce no quality results. But I knew that a search engine would yield little for two reasons, first Google isn’t great for credible word/quote origins because a lot of that information is still not in the open web, second, the quote he wanted was just too popular – any query featuring that specific string produced junk. Part of using context is knowing the limits of information retrieval systems (like search engines or databases) – most information can be found in a variety of places, and context gives the expert searcher important clues about where the best answer might be. Part of a librarian’s training involves learning about the breadth of the infospace. Consequently, librarians know that while the www is huge, size does not equal relevance. In order to find the origin of a quote, either a dictionary of quotations (like Bartlett’s) or the Oxford English Dictionary are the most authoritative and direct places to find the year in which a certain quote (or word) originated. For the gentlemen above, neither I nor my colleagues were able to find the answer he sought. We know that there are questions that do not have readily available answers. A good librarian considers the context and knows when it is advisable to give up.

The purpose of these three examples is not to represent every type of question where context is useful, instead they serve to give a few hints of how librarians use context in their work. When put against a popular search engine, the benefits of speaking to a trained information expert becomes clear. Many fields have considered using expert systems to offset the amount of time it takes to conduct “context-seeking” interviews and “diagnose” the person’s need. This works especially well in closed, or mostly closed systems where variables can be predicted. Reference questions that are not ready-reference or technology-related do not fit this mold; the fact that patrons aren’t themselves always sure of their exact question demonstrates just how open-ended a librarian’s interactions can be. The idea of guided systems for library-use isn’t a dead-end though. Recently (okay, not that recently, but I remember things I like), Brian Herzog created a checklist that is a good example of how a librarian attains contextual knowledge – there are a lot of lines to check off.

This brings us to our main point – until computers can read our minds, there will be no quick-and-easy way for contextually deep queries to be answered instantly. The job of a reference librarian is to discover and organize the “stuff” that surrounds a question and use it to lead the patron to a good answer. That takes time and knowledge – as professionals, librarians develop interview skills and knowledge of the infoscape. Other professions use these skills independently, but only librarians use them together. I’ve talked here about the importance of context when answering reference questions, but librarians also use context when planning programming, developing the library’s collection, and building online resources, among other tasks – the truth is, that there is nothing in librarianship that is done without using context. I would venture to say that this is the essence of our professional degree.

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