Research Librarianship in Crisis: Mediate When, Where, and How?

This month’s post in our series of guest academic librarian bloggers is by Bohyun Kim, Digital Access Librarian, Florida International University Medical Library. She blogs at Library Hat.

The talk about the crisis of librarianship is nothing new. Most recently, back in May, Seth Godin, a marketing guru, has written on his blog a post about the future of libraries. Many librarians criticized that Godin failed to fully understand the value of librarians and libraries.  But his point that libraries and librarians may no longer be needed was not entirely without merit (See my post “Beyond the Middlemen and the Warehouse Business”). Whether we librarians like it or not, more and more library users are obtaining information without our help.

One may think academic research libraries are an exception from this. Unfortunately, the same trend prevails even at research libraries. In his guest editorial for the Journal of Academic Librarianship, “The Crisis in Research Librarianship (pre-print version)”, Rick Anderson makes the case that patrons are finding information effectively without librarians’ help, citing the drastic decline of reference transactions in Association of Research Libraries (ARL).  According the ARL statistics, the number of reference transactions went down by more than 50-60 % since 1995.

This is particularly worrisome considering that at research libraries, we tend to place reference and instruction services at the center of the library operation and services. These services delivered by physical or online contact are still deemed to be one of the most prominent and important parts of the academic library operation. But the actual user behavior shows that they can and do get their research done without much help from librarians.  To make matters worse, existing library functions and structures that we consider to be central appear to play only a marginal role in the real lives of academic library users.  Anderson states: “Virtually none of them begins a research project at the library’s website; the average student at a major research university has fewer than four interactions with a reference librarian in a year (and even fewer of those are substantive reference interviews); printed books circulate at lower and lower rates every year.”

We have heard this before. So why are we still going in the same direction as we were a decade ago? Could this be perhaps because we haven’t figured out yet what other than reference and instruction to place in the heart of the library services?

For almost three years, my library has been offering workshops for library users. Workshops are a precious opportunity for academic librarians to engage in instruction, the most highly regarded activity at an academic library. But our workshop attendance has been constantly low. Interestingly, however, those who attended always rated the workshops highly. So the low attendance wasn’t the result of the workshops being bad or not useful. Library users simply preferred to spend their time and attention on something other than library workshops.  I remember two things that brought out palpable appreciation from users during those workshops: how to get the full-text of an article immediately and how to use the library’s LibX toolbar to make that process even faster and shorter.

What users seemed to want to know most was how to get the tasks for their research done fast, and they preferred to do so by themselves. They appreciated any tools that help them to achieve this if the tools were easy to use.  But they were not interested in being mediated by a librarian.

What does this mean?  It means that those library services and programs that aim at increasing contact between librarians and patrons are likely to fail and to be received poorly by users. Not necessarily because those offerings are bad but because users prefer not to be mediated by librarians in locating and using information and resources.

This is a serious dilemma. Librarians exist to serve as a mediator between users and resources. We try to guide them to the best resources and help them to make the best use of those resources.  But the users consider our mediation as a speed bump rather than as value-added service. So where do research libraries and librarians go from here?

I think that librarians will still be needed for research in the digital era. However, the point at which librarians’ mediation is sought for and appreciated may vastly differ from that in the past when information was scarce and hard to obtain.  Users will no longer need nor desire human mediation in basic and simple tasks such as locating and accessing information. Most of them already have no patience to sit through a bibliographic instruction class and/or to read through a subject guide.

But users may appreciate and even seek for mediation in more complicated tasks such as creating a relevant and manageable data set for their research.  Users may welcome any tool that libraries offer that makes the process of research from the beginning to the final product easier and faster. They will want better user interfaces for library systems. They will appreciate better bridges that will connect them with non-library systems to make library resources more easily discoverable and retrievable.  They will want libraries to be an invisible interface that removes any barrier between them and information.  This type of mediation is new to librarians and libraries.  Is it possible that in the future the libraries and librarians’ work is deemed successful exactly in inverse proportion to how visible and noticeable their mediation is?

In his guest editorial, Anderson presents several scenarios of research libraries “going out of business.” Libraries being absorbed into an IT group; Libraries losing computer labs, thereby losing a source of transaction with users as laptops and handheld devices become widely adopted; Libraries budget taken away for better investments; Libraries’ roles and functions being eroded slowly by other units; Information resources that libraries provide being purchased directly by users.

So if a library comes to lose its facilities such as a computer lab, a reading room, carrels, and group study rooms, would there still remain the need for librarians? If a library ends up removing its reference desk, workshops, and other instruction classes, what would librarians be left to do?  If we consider the library space that can be offered and managed by any other unit on campus as the essential part of library services and operation, the answer to these questions would be negative.  As long as we consider reference and instruction – the direct contact with users to mediate between them and resources – as the primary purpose of a library, the answer to these questions would be negative.

Libraries may never lose their facilities, and the need for users to have a direct contact with librarians may never completely go away. But these questions are still worth for us to ponder if we do not want to build a library’s main mission upon something on which the library’s patrons do not place much value. The prospect for the future libraries and librarians may not necessarily be dreary. But we need to rethink where the heart of research librarianship should lie.

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

10 thoughts on “Research Librarianship in Crisis: Mediate When, Where, and How?”

  1. “Users may welcome any tool that libraries offer that makes the process of research from the beginning to the final product easier and faster.”

    Which includes library instruction, no? One of the professors for whom I regularly teach classes introduces the session with “This session will improve your social life. You’ll have more time to relax with your friends and to think about things other than school, because you’ll be a better searcher.”

    And in other classes my presence is welcome because the type of research is outside the students’ usual scope and they’re nervous about it.

    But at the same time we create tutorials, offer the LibX toolbar, and put library resources in our campus portal and course management system, to be where the users are. I don’t belive the future is as dire as we might think, but we should continually strive to be relevant to our users.

  2. There is much written by futurists and forward-thinking professionals about how we librarians need to wake up and dramatically change our service models and mindsets, but little is written by these same authors about what is working in libraries (and yes, some things are still working) This is my main disagreement with this blog post and the Rick Anderson opinion piece it is based on.

    These opinions, while well-intentioned and in many respects, valid, are creating an unhelpful culture of fear and negativity. Although I don’t advocate turning a blind eye to aspects of our profession that could and should be changed or abandoned, I do think that we do ourselves a disservice when we constantly write our own obituaries. We are dissuading enthusiastic, forward-minded young scholars and technologists from entering the profession by painting ourselves as stuck in the past and obsolete. Given that “perception matters more than reality” according to Anderson’s writing, we are also doing ourselves a dramatic disservice by continuing to highlight our inadequacies without counterbalancing these critiques with helpful, useful alternative service models and practices.

    I am proud of my chosen profession and am always thinking about ways in which my practice can be better. I don’t want us to ignore aspects of librarianship that should be changed, but I would like to try to frame the conversation in such a way that promotes change out of a desire to be better, not out of fear.

  3. @Heidi Thanks for your thought! I meant ‘tool’ as something opposite to human mediation via librarians. Library instruction no doubt offers a lot of value to students who will sit through the session. But the question is whether that’s the way our users ‘prefer’ to learn how to get to the library resources. (I think what they wish is not needing to learn how to in the first place, which is one of the foremost reason why they go to Google.)

    @Veronica Thanks for your feedback! I don’t think that reflecting on the best direction for libraries to prosper in the future and working on possible improvements on existing services are mutually exclusive. The issue I wanted to bring attention to is that we may well be doing everything we can in the best possible way but we might still be going into a wrong direction if our service does not match up with users’ changing behavior.

  4. I want to second Ms. Arellano’s comment that it is counterproductive to keep focusing on problems without offering solutions.

    There are several flaws to some of these futurist arguments. To begin with, the case against reference service is predicated on an outdated model, and one that most libraries have either supplemented or moved past: the desk. We keep quoting falling statistics at the reference desk without analyzing their impact or implications. Do these numbers reflect an overall drop in need, or do they indicate a shift in focus, and perhaps a need for a new service delivery model? Anecdotal evidence suggests that librarians are fielding fewer of the ready-reference, known-answer questions which Google and the Web handle well; but we may then be spending more time on in-depth and complex questions. We need research and empirical evidence to determine if this is actually the case. But whatever type of questions we are answering, there is still a place for point-of-need reference. However, this doesn’t mean that professional staff need to spend hours tied to a physical or even a virtual space waiting for a patron to come with a question. Rather, we should be promoting more options for patrons to reach librarians on demand, by request or appointment, for support with their individualized and specific questions as they arise.

    Similarly, but I think more importantly, the argument against instruction uses another outdated model. Drop-in workshops are the information literacy equivalent of the physical reference desk, requiring patrons to come to a physical location at a specified time to sit through a presentation that may or may not be pertinent to their individual needs. That’s what point-of-need reference is for.

    But that does not mean that library instruction is not important. Indeed, all six regional accreditation organizations include some form of information literacy in their standards. The importance of information literacy is similarly stressed in reports by various research and professional organizations including the AACU’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise and the Lumina Foundation’s recent Degree Qualifications Profile. To sideline library instruction is to disassociate academic libraries from the central mission and goals of its parent institution and to undercut the potential contributions the library makes in support of these goals.

    Rather, we need to again examine the models of delivery. Librarians need to work with faculty and high level administrators to integrate information literacy into the curriculum, and beyond the course level. Drop-in workshops, one-shot sessions, and even stand-alone courses no longer suffice. Rather, we need to find ways to build information literacy developmentally and sequentially into the curriculum, and related to the majors and disciplines. We also need to assess and evaluate our work for evidence of learning and for continuous improvement.

  5. Just for those who stumble upon this somewhat dated blog post, I have expanded my thoughts on this topic and made a presentation at the ALA 2012 Annual Conference with two other librarians, Jason Clark at Univ. of Montana and Patrick Tod Colegrove at Univ. of Nevada.

    In case you are interested, the slides are available here:

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