Library directors may well find that the greatest resistance to new technologies
comes from their own staffs, because librarians can sense that the technology has very real costs that may threaten everything they hold dear.
First of all, the equipment is going to cost you a bundle. I don't mean just the computers and
monitors and printers, but everything that goes with it as well--the basic wiring of
the building, the routers, the server, if you have your own. You've got to
pay for your internet connection, and keep on paying. And don't think
you only have to buy the stuff once--you'll have to keep on replacing and upgrading it.
If you haven't managed to get entirely new money to fund the technology,
it will end up cannibalizing the budgets for books,
periodicals, and salaries. This does not give library staff warm and
fuzzy feelings about the machines.
You also can't underestimate what this is going to cost in time.
Somebody is going to have to learn how to configure and maintain the
equipment. Even if a full-time technical person is doing this, everybody is going to have to learn how to do basic machine
troubleshooting--Why isn't this printing? What do I do about the blue
screen of death? Librarians will have to do a whole lot of handholding
with patrons who have never used, and do not wish to use, a
Then there will be all the policy meetings to hammer out how you're going to handle access, security, filtering, time limits, and dirty old men.
Librarians will have to learn the peculiarities of all their article
databases, and then learn them all over again, time after time, because
sure as shooting, they're going to keep changing, too, adding nifty new
features. Librarians will need to learn some basic internet resources, and
learn to use at least one search engine really, really well. This is not
INSTEAD of learning to use traditional reference sources, it's in
That's why introducing the technology into your library can be a hard
sell. What's more, librarians will be starting at ground level
learning it. People who are used to being experts are going to be struggling
amateurs for a while, which can be very hard
on the self-esteem.
That's why, before you ever start, you need to make sure your staff
understands exactly what's in it for them. They need
to see the internet as the world's biggest reference collection, completely key word searchable. They need to
understand that it's a wonderful way of serving customers who are used to the WalMart model of 24-hour-a-day service without having to work Saturday night shifts.
Above all, they need to understand that if they do not embrace the internet, they risk becoming irrelevant. Taxpayers do not cheerfully spend money to keep the last surviving spotted owls on life support.
My Second Rule of Information: the Answer You Get Depends on the Question You Ask
What we do at the reference desk is often less a matter of handing out
answers than of showing our patrons how to ask better questions.
We know, as our users do not, that information is spread out over a spectrum
from specific to general. When they look up "abortion" and have no idea how to
deal with the thousands of items their search produces, we have to help
them get more specific. We ask them "what about abortion? Do you
want to talk about religious aspects? Moral and ethical aspects? Choice?"
If I can't pin them down with this, I will often ask
them, "If you found the exactly perfect article on your subject, what would
it be called?" I can then show them how to
translate that article title into terms the system can understand.
If they're not finding anything at all, though, we need to help them get LESS specific. We might suggest other terms; if they're not finding anything under "date rape" we might suggest the term "acquaintance rape," or even just "rape." It may be they're not finding what they want because they're doing a subject search, with a heading the system doesn't use.
The greatest advantage of computers is that they let us do keyword searching, through descriptors, titles, subtitles, abstracts, and contents notes, which quadruples our chances of finding something by sheer dumb luck. We can then parlay what we find into more by using their descriptors in further searches.
Computers also let us do OR searches to make sure we don't miss something because it might be called several different things. Then they let us do AND searches to move back down to the specific end of the continuum.
We teach our users to slide up and down that continuum like a trombone player, , from too narrow, to
general and back down to specific, or from way too general, to right on target.
Searching at the narrow end of that continuum is like fishing with hook and bait for one specific fish: if it's there and biting that day, you're fine,
but if it's not, you're stuck.
Starting at the top of the scale is like
fishing with a drift net and catching every available fish in a half mile
radius. Then you have to start pitching out all the illegal fish.
Which approach we take
is going to depend partly on the question, partly on the way our minds
work, and partly on what the search utilities allow us to do (Infotrac
products have the best system for throwing out those illegal fish I have ever
Certainly we teach our students specific mechanics--boolean logic, the features of specific databases, using help screens. But the most important thing we try to teach them is flexibility in their thinking.
People are all the time telling us that of course, we librarians know all the answers, and it's true we have amazingly eclectic bits and pieces of knowledge squirreled away in our minds. But
what we really know best is not the answers, but the questions.
Which is to say, they shouldn't ever play Jeopardy with us. We will kick ass.
For me, "the answer you get depends on the question you ask" is not just a rule of librarianship. It's a rule of life. For more, see my column, Change Your Question. And for my First Rule of Information, click here.