This one is from October 2005. Someone please explain to me why I’ve been sitting on these posts for this long?

I was looking recently at the slides from the presentation Realities of Virtual Reference, by Kathy Dabbour, Doris Helfer, & Lynn Lampert, from the 2004 Internet Librarian conference. Before I start this little rant, let me just say that this is a good presentation. Nothing earth-shatteringly novel perhaps, but a good case study of the launch & evaluation of a new service. This rant isn’t about the presentation, but about one comment by a librarian that they quote in the presentation. On slide #41:

“It’s a necessary evil in today’s technologically based time. I think we would lose patrons if we didn’t have an electronic reference service.”

Necessary evil? It’s a necessary evil to provide the kind of service that our patrons want, and use? Ok, so not all services that patrons want are necessarily going to be within the scope of the library’s mission (enough said about that). But if libraries aren’t offering services that are both within the scope of the library’s mission & that patrons actually use, then tell me, exactly why will patrons want to use the library?

What was the librarian who made this comment saying, really? That technology has no place in libraries? That we should train our patrons to do only what we tell them to do and use only the resources that we tell them to use? So much for the educational mission of libraries. So much for libraries being in a position to teach information literacy, or god forbid, technology literacy.

Chuck McClure, in his wrap-up speech at the 2001 VRD conference, said that we as a profession need to rethink what reference is and how to deliver it, and if you don’t like it, well, get over it. Of course he was preaching to the choir; it was the Virtual Reference Desk conference after all. But his “get over it” pissed off a lot of librarians who heard about it later. And now, sadly, fully 4 years later [note: 6½ years later now], a lot of people still haven’t gotten over it. I thought Chuck was just being his typically curmudgeonly self, and he was, but he was also pretty darn prescient. I guess he’s been working with librarians long enough to know just how change-resistant they are.

Trish commented on a previous post of mine that:

“After 10-20 of library automation, an upstart from 1997 trumped library systems in two years. There’s a lot to be said for fearless innovation.”

She was talking about SIRSI & Google, but the same applies in other arenas of library work. Let me make this as clear as I possibly can: We are getting spanked.

Exhibit A: Joe Janes found that digital reference services worldwide received 8,106 questions over a 3 day period. Ok, so I question the methodology for that study. But still, compare that with what Spink et al. found, that between 1996-99, Excite processed over 30 million queries per day. And that’s old data. Lesson: search engines are receiving more than 3 orders of magnitude more use than library reference services. And that’s even if you include desk reference stats.

Exhibit B: The ACRL reports about 5 million items circulated annually by member libraries. I quickly glanced through Amazon’s SEC filings to see if they say what percentage of their total sales are made up by books, & they don’t, at least not that I could tell. But I’ll bet it’s a hell of a lot more than 5 million items annually.

Need I go on?

The moral(s) of the story:

One, learn to love technology.

Two, marketing. We seem to have a professional aversion to marketing & PR. We seem to have this attitude that libraries are absolute social goods, & isn’t that obvious? Of course the taxpayers and the legislature will continue funding libraries. We love all and serve all. Well, get over it.

I suspect the reason I never finished this post is that I had some ideas for more morals of the story, and never got them down on paper, so to speak. Oh well; they’re lost to time now. Also, as an aside, there’s a reason I named this blog PomeRantz.