Some Ideas About Radical Reference

Rochelle Mazar has a nice post about providing radical reference in which she states:

The future of reference service is not behind a desk. Truly radical reference is coming out from behind that desk and bringing that crucial resource of answers into real life, into that space between having a question and the topic shifting over to something else, into the space between half-way done and handed in. Radical reference is not about waiting for the question. It’s not about simply being as good as we are and being the only ones who know it. It’s about handing out those answers where they’re needed. It’s about being there with help at the point of need, not under the “info” sign. It’s about being a part of the process rather than an appendage that might be useful if it occurred to you to put it to use.

I definitely agree with this statement. One of my biggest fears (perhaps unfounded) is that one day my job as a reference librarian will become obsolete. This is really scary, as I really love what I do. I don’t have a fear of being replaced by the Internet or some super computer in the very near future, but I feel that if I am complacent with the status quo, I may one day wake up and see that I am not needed anymore. Granted, I may still have a job, but I may be just as obsolete if I no longer provide academic support by teaching or answering questions. Sitting at a reference desk and talking to no one, or attempting to teach classes that no one attends really does not appeal to me. The answer: as Rochelle says, we must adapt with our users while changing current reference paradigms. However, change does not come easy, as there can be several potential barriers to change. Time, culture, technology, and personal limitations, to name a few, can all be barriers to changing the way we do business.

When attempting to change the way we do things, time can be a factor that hinders our progress. I realize that we often try to change processes, procedures, and behaviors because to do so will be more efficient. However, time itself can keep us from trying new things. If you already work the reference desk, perform collection development duties, serve on committees, and try to keep up with professional issues, then when do you have time to try new things? It takes time to try something new and innovative while also trying to keep up with your current daily duties. While challenging, if you really want to try to change something, you have to make time to do so. For example, when I am gearing up for fall quarter library instruction classes, I make sure I take time to look at ways I can improve over the last time I taught a class. It takes very little time to prepare if you only give the same demonstration. However, if you spend 15-30 extra minutes trying to change 1-2 things about your presentation, you never know what sort of impact that change might have. By taking the time to try something new, you might be able to reach the student/patron better.

Our ability or willingness to try new things can be hindered by the culture at our institutions. Rochelle hinted that one such barrier can be the academic culture, as “instructors are unlikely to want us sitting in on all of their classes, looking over the assignments and offering advice regularly.” In this example, it can be very difficult to change that mindset, but there are things we can do as librarians to tie us closer to the classroom. One such thing is to offer to teach a 1-2 hour instruction session to the class. Make sure that there is plenty of time to cover the project topic, and make sure the search examples are relevant to what the students will be working on. While a class might not seem like a good idea to an instructor, simply making yourself available (rather than waiting for him/her to contact you) shows that you are interested in what he/she is teaching and what the students are working on.

Our own culture as librarians can hinder change as well. Let’s say that you have some great ideas about how to take your services to where the users are. You might be interested in setting up shop in one of the academic buildings, dorms, or computer labs for a few hours each week. What’s stopping you? Well, time may be an issue, but also your existing work culture. The status quo may dictate that you are supposed to work the reference desk on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 to 2. You are also supposes to be available to handle walk-in patrons who have questions in your specific subject area. How in the world can you be across campus as well? A pilot program might be a good idea, as that will allow you to investigate if a service is needed, while also letting you test the waters of your own culture. Folks are generally pretty receptive to a pilot, as they know they can pull the plug if things don’t work out quite right.

Another barrier that we may have to overcome in shifting the paradigm is technology. The argument has been around for quite some time that technology makes a number of things easier. One should just simply begin using the technology, right? Well, the problem with technology is that there are many times when it is not used as intended, or as effectively as it should be used. One example of this is with course management tools such as Blackboard and WebCT. I know that there are many instructors who do a great job of managing their classes with these systems, and they are incorporating creative measures into changing how they teach. Unfortunately, there are also a great number of instructors who just use the system to post class readings, notes, and quizzes. In this example, technology really has not improved the teaching of the class, but rather has only made it more convenient to get the class content.

I have been guilty of a similar situation in the library world. A fine example is with my research guides/pathfinders. These basically used to be word documents that were handed out to business students. These are now online in html format, but are they any more useful because technology made them more available? I would guess no, as the content can be terribly boring to read, and it does not focus on a specific topic at hand. My solution to this has been to compliment my research guides with a blog. When students have a specific industry analysis or marketing plan to do, I can write about the project in my business blog and point them to relevant resources for the project, while also pointing them to the subject guides. In this way, technology has allowed me to deliver more timely and needed information, while also allowing me to still use more traditional methods as well.

I have mentioned three external factors that can hinder one from shifting into radical reference. I am sure that there are quite a few others. However, I believe the most difficult barrier to overcome might be our own personal limitations. These can be a variety of things, such as a fear of change, fear of failure, or perhaps a fear of not knowing where the future may take you. As cheesy as it sounds, you can really accomplish some cool things when you recognize your personal limitations and confront them. I used to be afraid of trying new things in the classroom, because I was afraid that I would fail in front of 25 students. I got over this fear by introducing small changes in different classes. Some would work, others would fail miserable. The students didn’t really care, because they had never seen the way I used to do it. Only I knew that things didn’t work out as I intended, but at the same time, I learned something by taking a risk. We can often learn a great deal about ourselves when we take risks, step outside of our comfort zones, and try to change our “business as usual” approach to doing things.

I’ll try to write more about this topic, because I find it interesting how libraries and librarians are redefining their roles while conquering stereotypes, fears, and the status quo. I believe that libraries and librarians will be around for quite some time, but we will need to adapt to our users needs if we are to be successful. As Rochelle states: We can’t keep replicating traditional reference service; we need to radicalize it. I am sure the same thing can be said for a variety of library services. The question is, how are you getting radical and what barriers have you faced in getting radical?