This post is part of the Hack Library School’s Library Student Day in the Life week. For those of you who are here because of that, thanks for visiting! I’m an online University of Maryland MLS student, the social media manager for UMD’s iDiversity organization and a library clerk on a public library’s reference desk. Come back every day this week to learn more about what it’s like to be a MLS student. And be sure to visit the LSDITL page for a list of everyone participating this week. And read all of my HLSDITL posts here.
Hello, folks! My evaluation and planning class had a side discussion going on HathiTrust (a digital repository) and Google Books. This discussion quickly turned to one of access, which segued into discussions of WorldCat and the “buy-it” features found on WorldCat and Google Books. One of the main arcs of the discussion was about whether the aforementioned services will replace libraries. While we all generally agreed it was unlikely that these services will cause the end of libraries, it got me thinking about an overarching question I have faced in many of my graduate classes: Should librarians use or point patrons to nonlibrary resources?
I’m a millennial who grew up with the Internet and Google. For my own personal information needs, I turn to Google first. On the reference desk, I turn to our online catalog instead. Why the difference? To be honest it is mostly that my employers and my patrons expect me to use something other than Google. I feel as though patrons expect us to have some magical answer genie that they can’t access, and to be fair, most of their questions can be answered in our catalog. This is because in a public library, patrons are generally asking “Do you have any books on xyz?” But my personal information needs (i.e. not school-related needs) usually involve a question along the lines of “Who was that one actor in that film about the dog” or “I have Brussels sprouts and butternut squash. What can I make with that?” But that does not mean that Google is unable to answer reference questions. It just has to be used thoughtfully.
I have previously mentioned an example where it was only once I turned to Google that I was able to find the name of a book for a patron. But that’s not the only time Google comes through for me on the reference desk. At least once a week I get asked for a phone number of a business. While we do have phone books behind the desk, Google is a much faster and simpler resource. I also have a patron who calls once a month or so looking for book recommendations. Her interests lie in Amish mystery series, a genre I had not heard of before speaking to her. While you can search for “Amish mystery” in our online catalog, it doesn’t actually say if a book is part of a series. For that, I turn to Google.
I was not surprised to find that Google gets a bad rap in libraries when I began library school. From high school on, my educators spent a great deal of time drilling into my head that Google was bad. But when it comes to serving patrons, librarians should leave no stone unturned. Just like any resource, if used properly, Google can be a vital tool in any librarian’s kit.
Beyond Google, my professor mentioned a worry that by sending patrons to Amazon for books we might inadvertently be spelling doom for libraries. Far from being a traitorous move, I see this as just another way of providing stellar service to patrons. If our system does not have a book and the other local library systems don’t have a book, then patrons will leave empty-handed. That’s high on my list of things not to do on the reference desk. Instead, I run a check on Amazon or Barnes and Noble and let patrons know if what they need can be purchased there. Indeed, WorldCat.org offers a way to search both local libraries and leading bookstores in one site. I often send patrons there so they too can benefit from that resource.
The job of a librarian is about providing access. Not offering a lead on a place that does offer a resource is tantamount to denying access to that resource, at least in my book. Librarians will always be necessary for pointing people to the resources that meet their needs. If we make use of these valuable resources, we will continue to be on the forefront of meeting the information needs of our patrons. If we don’t, we run the risk of fading into obsolescence anyway.