Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Chronicle Article / On Social Networking in Reference


I'm not a blogger. But here's a blog, mostly because I've found myself writing the same thing over and over again, responding to e-mails and blog posts about a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I need a venue to share my own response to what was written. In a read-write web, why not blog it?

Scott Carlson of the Chronicle wrote an article called "Are Reference Desks Dying Out?" You can find it here if you haven't already seen it... but since you've found this blog, I bet you have. (The link might go bad in a couple of days. If you've got access, you may be able to read it through LexisNexis.)

I'm glad Mr. Carlson chose to highlight the Librarian With a Latte service I've started offering this past semester. I'll make another posting a bit later on my success and failures with it -- I did learn some lessons from it! But for now, I'd like to directly respond to some of the spicier bits of the article regarding the panel presentation "The Future of Reference," presented at the ACRL National Conference in Baltimore a couple of weeks ago.

In the article, Carlson reports on the interaction between panelists and a librarian, Kathy DeMey from Calvin College:

"When Ms. DeMey mentioned the results [of a survey that suggested nearly 85 percent of students preferred face-to-face interaction above other types of interaction], the librarians on the panel ridiculed her, saying that she had probably misread them. Helping students with tough problems can be an ego booster, the panel said, and Ms. DeMey was very likely sentimentalizing her experiences at the reference desk. Others who stood up and extolled the virtues of face-to-face reference interactions got similar dismissive responses." (emphasis mine)

Carlson's description reflects an atmosphere that, for me at least, was one of palpable discomfort. However, that discomfort, frustration, and as I am quoted saying, anger, isn't fully explained here in the article. I'd like to expand a bit further on this.

The anger and frustration arose not from the suggestion that librarians need to get with social networking tools -- I think the pervasiveness of social networking as a topic at ACRL proves this point. We're definitely all on board in seeing these tools as new ways to reach students. Instead, I was angered by the lack of answers the panel provided. Instead of responding to DeMey's comment with some ideas on how physical and virtual reference interactions can take place, they criticized her survey methods. Even if they weren't "ridiculing" DeMey, it's hard to understand why they didn't address the real question behind her comment: will it work? Why do you believe it will work? How do face-to-face interactions and virtual interactions fit together?

More than one other questioner from the audience was answered with "I'll get back to you over e-mail." This was particularly frustrating, because people who got up to the microphone had valid questions, and the panelists did not provide any insight to the audience. Who knows how the questions posed were answered?

Certainly librarians are not Luddites. In fact, it is in our blood to pioneer new methods of serving students in the academy. I tend to agree with just about everything the panelists have talked about in terms of finding new ways to remain relevant in a world where students are more likely to use Facebook than a library website. I also think that the panelists, Brian Mathews in particular, believe that face-to-face interactions with students are important in developing working relationships with them.

However, I'm not certain that anyone has any answers as to how it all pieces together just yet. How do reference strategies like Facebook profiles, scouring student blogs, and Second Life reference desks fit into reference practice as a whole? How do traditional reference interactions influence the likelihood of success in a social networking environment? Do students want us there?

I currently get reference questions through Facebook myself -- generally, these questions are from students who I've met in other modes of physical interaction. I've never had a student contact me out of the blue in Facebook before, despite having had an account for a year. I register for classes so I appear on class rosters for my COMM classes, and my profile image actually has the words "COMM Studies Librarian" in the image itself, so I don't appear just as another face. Still, however, I don't get any contact through Facebook unless they are students I've met physically.

This brings me to my own thoughts on social networking sites: great for 'being where they are', but not so hot for that 'first contact' with a student. I'm curious if librarians out there have any suggestions or thoughts on this. Brian Mathews, in the panel, mentioned that students don't really think about Facebook as places to think about research and work, and that is something that needs to change before the culture of social networking sites can include academic correspondence -- is it just a matter of time? Will this change require the increasing presence of faculty and librarians on Facebook? More importantly, do the metaphors of social networking tools (i.e. contacts are known as 'friends', giving 'gifts' to people, writing on the wall, poking people) define the space as a social space devoid of work- or study-related topics?

These questions have not been answered yet. I think there are some talented librarians out there that are adept and conducting research studies -- I hope some of these questions are taken on by someone who can really go out and get some answers.

I also think there needs to be a more open discussion about these topics. Blog posts like this one, despite being issued through a Web 2.0 read-write tool, the blog, still seem a bit one-sided in the sense that the blog authors still control which comments are okay to go, and which ones are not.

Scott Carlson referred to me as a young librarian -- this is true. I'm but one year our of library school. I'd very much appreciate some feedback, some referrals to mailing lists that would promote a discussion of this sort, and any response you have to the article.

Finally, I want to say that I think the article has given Brian Mathews and his fellow panelists undeserved bad publicity. Mathews has pioneered the venture into social networking environments, and I find it hard to criticize any efforts to be proactive with new technologies. Sure, I think the panel itself left much to be desired, but I don't think any of the ideas the panel presented were necessarily bad ones. The work Brian has done should not be overshadowed by one panel presentation that struck the wrong chord with many.

Librarians are interested in the future of reference -- whatever form that takes. But we're also interested in reference in the present, and the connection between what we do now and what we might do in the future.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Please also see Brian Mathew's blog post on the backlash he's received from the Chronicle article, and some of the insightful comments that have been made there. I've also made a comment there to the effect of this post.

I'm on Facebook. Feel free to add me as a friend and send me messages through there!

Eric F.


Lani Draper said...


I have enjoyed your post and agree with you. I would also like to see more research done on this topic. I think the great thing about library conferences is getting to hear about all the new things going on. It is up to each individual what he or she takes back. One thing that always depresses me about the conference is that I hear about these great, innovative things going on at other libraries, but I know that they may or may not work in my library environment either because of staff capabilities or because of the students on my campus. I think it is important for librarians to think about that. Each campus is going to be different and you need to tailor your services to your campus. That shouldn’t stop you from trying new things. Like you said with your “Librarian with a Latte” service, you have success and failures and you learn from your experiences.

Thanks for writing about this and good luck.

Lani Draper

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