You know how they say that to someone with a hammer, all problems start
looking like something that can be solved by pounding?
We librarians run the same risk in our own thinking. As wonderfully flexible as our minds are, we still often tend to head one place, and one place only
to answer questions--our reference collections. That's what we know
well, after all, and we're used to making the translation: that's a "what
is it?" question, about math, so I need a math dictionary or encyclopedia.
Which is indeed just fine as long as we have a math dictionary or
encyclopedia. What if we don't?
This is the point at which some of us will head to the net, on the
assumption that there are a great many specialized dictionaries and
encyclopedias online, so why not one on math? And indeed, that strategy is
going to work.
But sometimes the answers we are looking for are in our own collection and
we just don't realize it. Does anybody but a gov docs librarian ever
remember to use the gov docs collection for reference? Does anybody but a
children's librarian think to use the children's collection (which is an
unparalleled source for answering "what does it look like?" questions)?
Probably only a serials librarian think of periodicals as a wonderful
source of statistics (Survey of Current Business, for instance),
schedules of events (New Yorker, Chronicle of Higher Education), documents
(e.g., the Pope Speaks), directories of suppliers (e.g., Library Journal), the pros and cons of public issues (CQ Researcher or Congressional Digest, for example).
But if what our patron needs is just not anyplace to be found in our library, and we can't find it on the
web, we need to think of someplace that logically would collect that
information and refer them. We might send them to a city
Information and Referral service for social services information, or to a
local labor union office or food bank for information about the last economic downturn, or to a historical society for local history
materials we don't keep.
We hate telling our patrons "we don't have anything." Unless, of course, we
can at the same time tell them, "here are some people who might." Which
means thinking beyond our particular little box, the walls of our library.
How do we build this kind of flexibility into our minds? Here's something I do to keep me from falling into the "one place and one place only" trap (and yes, of course I have this problem myself). Each week, I go back to two or three reference questions I answered perfectly satisfactorily, and try to find the answer in a different way.
If I found it on the net, I'll try to find it in a reference book or periodical, and vice versa. If I found it in one database, I'll try the search in some other databases and see what i come up with there. I might look in the government pages or yellow pages to see if there's some local agency or organization that would have the expertise or resources to answer the question. Try it. It's a good way to force yourself to stretch your reference muscles and discover the reference sources you didn't realize you had.
PAYING ATTENTION TO OUR USERS
In some libraries, the person who does the computer design and technical
stuff doesn't have time to work the reference desk
anymore -- or maybe has never worked a reference desk. Which is a pity,
because it separates the person who's designing the interface from the
users of the system.
Some things I have learned about our students, by watching the way they look
for stuff, have important service implications for us.
These are things I have observed with our patrons, who are mostly college
students. Your own users may behave differently. But we need to pay
attention to them, because the closer our search systems
match the ways our users look for things, the more likely they will be to find
what they want. And the more likely they are to think our library is a