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Find more Talking Shop with Dave Tyckoson
Dave Tyckoson is the associate dean of the Henry Madden Library, California State University–Fresno. A longtime reviewer for Booklist, he also sits on the Booklist Editorial Board, and we’re pleased to have him pen the first installment of this new op-ed feature.
“Why do we still need reference librarians when we have Wikipedia/Google/Internet/[fill in the blank]?”
It’s the question that we have all heard before in one variation or another. After all, we live in a world in which every individual has instant access to more information than at any previous time in human history. With any networked device, we can all find information, take classes, make purchases, listen to music, watch videos, get directions, see what our friends are doing, and find out about just about anything. In this connected world, why do we need libraries—or reference librarians?
It’s a valid, but naive, question. The popular image of the reference librarian is of someone who dispenses answers. The question assumes that what librarians do is dispense facts. Do you need to find a biography of Einstein? The dates of the Norman invasion? The distance to the closest star? The names of the seven dwarfs? You used to ask a reference librarian. But with the Internet, people no longer need to ask those questions—they can find that information themselves. So they naively make the assumption that reference librarians are no longer needed.
The problem with the question is that it misses the more subtle—and more important—nature of libraries and reference service. Yes, we sometimes give out factual answers. But most of the time, the questions that we get have no single answer. Is global warming real? Does listening to music while asleep improve memory skills when awake? Do diet soft drinks increase a risk of cancer? Are the beaches nicer in the Caribbean or in Hawaii? We help our users with many more of those kinds of questions than we do for factual ones—and we always have. Finding facts is easy—answering complex questions is difficult. And it is for those complex questions that reference librarians are needed.
Reference librarians know how to search and how to evaluate information. We understand how to judge which sources are credible, and we know search techniques that find resources that simple searching cannot. We know how to determine an author’s biases. We know how to identify the underlying political aspects of a document. And we never tell anyone else what we helped you with.
But the biggest impact of the reference librarian—and of the library—is on the community. Every library is designed to serve a specific community. Public libraries serve the people of a specific city or county. Academic libraries serve the faculty, staff, and students of a specific college or university. School libraries serve the students and teachers of a specific school. Medical libraries serve doctors, nurses, and patients at a specific hospital. Law libraries serve the attorneys and staff of a specific law firm. Each library is designed to add value to the specific community that it serves.
Some of that value comes from the library collections, which provide access to specific information resources that support the community. Yes, we purchase sources, build guides, and link to sites that meet the needs of members of our specific community. But the real value comes from the librarians who guide users to their information. Reference librarians serve as advisors, recommending the best information sources for each community member. Reference librarians serve as searchers, using specialized skills to retrieve the best information from the overwhelming number of documents available. Reference librarians serve as evaluators, identifying which sources are credible and which are not. And reference librarians serve as instructors, teaching community members skills to make them information independent.
The library—and the reference librarian—exists to serve the community. By interacting with reference librarians, community members become more information literate. And when a community is composed of members with a higher degree of information literacy, it becomes a better community. Libraries and reference librarians help the community learn and grow. Libraries and reference librarians help the community survive. Communities become better places when libraries and reference librarians are part of them. And that is why we still need reference librarians.
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