Anecdote 1: Today I said to the Provost, in a discussion of libraries and computer labs, “It makes sense; they’re an outward-facing service, and that’s what libraries are really good at. We provide services to users, and we like helping people.” I believe that. Libraries are good at providing services to users, and librarians like helping people.
Anecdote 2: A student just came to the Ref desk, with a call number written on a piece of scrap paper. “Is this in the basement?”
“Nope, that’s over there in the Reference collection, because, see, there’s the REF before the rest of the call number? That means over there.”
“So, then, what’s in the basement?”
“A-C, and D-Z are upstairs… unless there’s a REF, in which case, it’s all over to the left.”
He came back. The dictionary he found didn’t have what he needed (a good long definition of ethos, pathos, and logos from the perspective of persuasive argument and rhetoric).
As I searched our online encyclopedias, he said, “So, how did you learn to do all this?”
“Grad school teaches us some of it — the theory of how people look for information, of how to get you to tell me what you really need when you’re trying not to bother me, and how information is organized in print resources. But mostly, you learn by doing. Or by asking me.”
Eventually, after three false starts, I found an encyclopedia of rhetoric that had good essays on each concept.
He would never have succeeded on his own. Not because he wasn’t trying, but because he just couldn’t navigate our systems effectively. Hell, I could barely navigate our systems effectively, and I’m a professional.
Anecdote 3: Go read this Friendfeed thread, which starts with:
Imagine, if you will, if the systems for accessing full text journal articles were as complicated before online databases, indexes and ejournals as it is now… In order to enter this room full of journals, you must first unlock the door using a seekrit combination. Then, 6 months of journal A will be missing but 12 months of journal B will be missing, but we will have seven sets of journal C, each covering a different period of years, [and] the earlier years of journal D are in separate room 3 floors down and across the building, just follow this strand of yarn, you’ll be fine.
The responses are sad, but also funny, if you love libraries and can have a sense of humor about what we do.
And so. I say, we help people. It’s what we do, and we work hard at it. We like it, people like it, it’s a social good.
And then I ask, but are we doing a good job of building systems that let us do it?
I know how I’d answer that question.