tl;dr, why reference and authority matter

I read a lot of blogs, but I don’t always follow through and read their links. I appreciate it when people whose opinions I trust can summarize long things for me. Sometimes I sumarize those things for other people. Tonight I am reading the twenty-four page report More on What is Going on at the Library of Congress prepared for AFSCME 2910 by Thomas Mann. You can find it linked off of this page, if you really like reading these sorts of things.

He makes a lot of interesting points that other scholarly types have been trying to make in more clunky fashion for quite some time. In short, libraries that still exist for the purpose of furthering scholarship are having a harder time doing it, both because of the shift towards electronic reources and the “it’s all on Google” mentality but also because our own institutions (LoC I am looking in your direction) seem to want to actively dismantle some of the better tools we have for organizing and accessing knowledge. I’m just pulling out a small part of this, but really you should go read the whole thing. Some people might take umbrage, but one of my favorite things about this particular presentation of the issues is that Mann really seems to have a well-researched opinion that he wants to get across without insulting anyone, having a hissyfit, or saying that other people are losers or idiots. It’s clear that he has a take on things, one that others would disagree with, but he lets his metaphors and ideas speak for themselves, even as he’s responding to people who I assume were disagreeing with his last paper on the subject.

The Continuing Need for Reference Librarians

What catalogs and portals cannot do, however, what classified bookstacks cannot do, what Internet search engines cannot do, what federated searching cannot do–these things can be done by reference librarians who, far beyond the capacity of any “under the hood programming,” are able to provide researchers with expert guidance on the full range of options available to them for their particular topics, in an intelligent sequence of use, with the best search options and sources segregated from thousands of blind alleys, dead ends, and mountains of unwanted irrelevancies.

Reference work, in other words, is not just a nice “add on” optional service; in its dual function of providing point-of-use instruction and overview classes it is integral to the efficient use of research libraries and to the promotion of scholarship in general. It cannot be replaced by “under the hood” programming improvements in library catalogs or portals, especially when such programming dumbs down multiple complex systems to a lowest common denominator of keyword searching–and also fails to search the vast arrays of resources that are not digitized at all.

2 Responses to “tl;dr, why reference and authority matter”

  1. Darren Chase Says:

    I am a member of a library lecture series committee, and we met last week to discuss topics/speakers for this year’s event. The other committee members are mostly library-friendly doctors and faculty, and one of them earnestly asked the question, “What is the future of libraries now that everything is available online? Will there be a physical library in the future? Will there be librarians?” The discussion that followed that question really opened my eyes to how those outside LibraryLand (even library-friendlies) will mistake expanded access to information via the Web with the conclusion of the mission of librarians and libraries.

  2. VALIS » Blog Archive » Roundup: Outreach, Social OPACs, and more Says:

    [...] Jessamyn West summarises Thomas Mann’s paper More on What is Going on at the Library of Congress, including a section explaining that technology cannot replace reference librarians. Which is a relief [...]