Thursday, April 15, 2010

From General Reference to Subject Specialty

David Michalski
Humanities and Social Sciences Librarian
University of California, Davis

Libraries and librarians have made great strides over the years to simplify access to resources by promoting to the general public good practices in the use and construction of databases and search engines. The society we serve has changed too. Information navigation skills are widely held, acquired by children at an early age, and mastered by adults who are compelled to learn the latest technologies to conduct the business of their everyday lives. Large databases are omnipresent and following inter-text citations is routine. More than ever, our social lives and social networks our influenced by our management and manipulation of digital social networks. Most new university students are no longer unfamiliar with things like Boolean searching, tags, faceted browsing, or the once arcane structures of databases. Great ‘world-cataloging’ initiatives like, WorldCat, Google, and Youtube, are no longer sublime. They are the commonplace, practical and personal instruments of an expansive cognitive world.

These transformations have important implications for reference service. One positive effect of the diminished aura associated with database technology has been to liberate the librarian from some aspects of repetitive general instruction. The orientation work on the basic operation of information technology is less necessary. Rather than explaining how to construct search strings or how to combine or filter result lists with subject headings/tags or other limits, more attention can be paid to information literacy, on teaching patrons how to analyze and evaluate the content of search results, and to deciphering their relation within the topic of inquiry. Thanks to the popularity of database experience, time spent on teaching ‘how to search’, can now be devoted to teaching patrons ‘how best to search’ in respect to the particular research project at hand.

Too be sure, reference communication still requires both general and specialized knowledge. General skills are not universally mastered. In fact, the populations we serve are diverse, both culturally and in terms of research experience. With popular information skills more widely distributed, however, it has been somewhat easier to teach people how to interact with our search tools, how to expand and contract results and how to discovery unforeseen links to like-documents. The emerging popular familiarity with relational databases makes it easier for patrons to transition from one interface to another. With such general skills in place, I can now concentrate on showing patrons how to trace a document’s authority, provenance, and how one might uncover future citations or link to common vocabulary terms in related datasets. I still meet many patrons who are new to both academic research and complex database searching, but even in such meetings, these patrons increasingly demand both advice on how to use information technological and advice about the intellectual content of their results. The more difficult part for the reference librarian at a university has always been to situate the patron in the social life of information.

Even as general librarianship is made easier by the popularity of library/database skills, this later challenge has been made more difficult by the kind of tools emerging today. Many of the vast fulltext aggregator databases shield the scope of their contents from their users. Others offer seemingly arbitrary sets of documents based on publishers or unseen publisher agreements. The coherent subject orientated index and abstracting tool takes on new importance in such an environment, but even many of these have become unwieldy. Today the reference librarian needs to have a handle on the discourse, and better, a foot in the intellectual world she or he is charged to serve. Knowledge of a subject’s own language or jargon, its intra-disciplinary fragmentation, the distribution and repudiation of its publishers is increasingly necessary. The librarian must position the research question within the diverse cultures of inquiry that make up today’s university. If in years past, the librarian had concerned her or his self the mastery of information science alone, the interrelation of information content with information structures no longer makes such an approach viable. Librarians are now often enlisted in the construction of literature reviews.

Today’s researcher, undergraduate or professor, must confront vast displays of initial search results and from these make crucial decisions. The flatness of their representation lends the results the illusion of exchangeability and makes their use values harder to decipher. In this environment the subject grounded librarian is called upon to guide and interpret results, to provide context and relief in the horizontal displays of equivalency. For the advanced researcher or inquisitive undergraduate, the subject specialist librarian can serve as a cross disciplinary translator, one who can help lead the researcher who endeavors to enter new areas of exploration. The subject specialist/bibliographer, trained both formally and through ongoing collection development work, can make connections between schools, publishers, and intellectual movements. Librarians are often called upon to orient researchers in rapidly hybridizing fields of study.

The undergraduate especially benefits from this contextualization. After meeting with subject specialists, and walking the contours of their topic of inquiry, after situating their question within their field of study, and then situating their field within the larger information landscape, the student can engage their projects from firmer ground. She or he can then return with more thoughtful, intellectually informed questions and a better understanding of the history of ideas, the value of citations, and a more cogent understanding of the social organization of knowledge and how it relates to her or his project. In other words, the subject librarian can facilitate the progressive intellectual development of the student by helping the student to avoid repeating the same entry level queries.

Today’s researchers want to speak with people who understand their complex language, projects and ideas. They like to meet with people who know the general authors, theories, tenets, and controversies which occupy them. This not only gives them the confidence that the library is acting as a powerful partner in their own mission. It allows them to interconnect to wider or related discourses.

To maximize quality reference service the Librarian needs to work in partnership with teaching faculty. She or he must have a familiarity with the work of the professors, an understanding of what their assignments are designed to teach, and how the class project fits into the course’s wider disciplinary context. By reiterating course teachings in the context of the information environment a practical knowledge of information is fostered.

The rise in programs and departments on our campuses combined with the level of staffing currently supported by our budgets makes an ideal symmetry between subject expertise and academic programs impossible to obtain. At the University of California at Davis, I am responsible to no less than ten programs across the Humanities and Social Sciences. I can not master the knowledge of all these areas, and the idea that I am a specialist in all of them diminishes the authority such a status ought to convey. Yet, to these programs, and to the work of the professors and students in them, I remain devoted, doing the best I can, based on the research, training, and reading I do to perform as a knowledgeable guide to the available resources and literatures. I know my colleagues across the University do the same. But there is no doubt, the need for subject specialty is growing just as our resources are being reduced.

In our challenging times, however, we ought not coil back from this responsibility, and concern ourselves only with generalities of research. Instead we need to restructure the library so that it becomes more effective at meeting this growing need. Posturing as if all information were of equal value, as if libraries were only responsible for the management of interchangeable info-widgets is to distort the complexity of the information landscape today. Instead, we must work at finding the best ways to teach and promote the contextual value of information, and do our best to support the practices and policies which add knowledge based assistance to the research process.

See also...

The Qualitative Place of the Reference Desk Today

On Ubiquitous Instruction