You know how when you read something that is really new and provocative, you just want to immediately share it with colleagues. That’s the way I felt when I first read a draft of an editorial written by Bill Miller for The Reference Librarian. The editorial is titled “Reference, Cultural Values, and the Contact Zone,” and it appears in Vol. 47, No. 2 for 2007. If your library has access to the online version of Haworth Journals you can find it there. At that time I did ask Miller, a co-editor of the journal, if I could write about it in ACRLog. Unfortunately, I learned that I would need to wait until the issue was published. Now I finally can tell you about this editorial.
Like me, you may have never heard of a seminal conference address by Mary Louise Pratt on the topic of “Arts of the Contact Zone.” Miller points out that this essay has “received next to no attention within librarianship”. The Contact Zone is where people from different cultures come together, and is what happens when they interact in the Zone. Miller indicates that this has profound implications for reference librarians, for the desk is a contact zone. But the cultural clash with which reference librarians contend is not one with students from a foreign country, but many of our native students who represent a very different culture, especially when it comes to academic expectations. Miller writes:
Reference librarians dealing with a diverse student body need to be very aware that they are operating in a contact zone in which many library users have fundamentally different assumptions from our own about what is valuable and important…our imagined community in which every student is assumed to be a fledgling scholar who would naturally want to practice research…is truly more imagined than real. If one views young people as coming from an entirely different culture, things start to make more sense.
So the next time you are at the reference desk or in an instruction session it may be helpful to develop a mental image of yourself talking with or assisting a stranger in a strange land. Given how radically different the culture of today’s students is, they may as well be from a very different place. As Miller advises the reader, new strategies are needed for the nature of work in which we now engage in the contact zone.