From the catalogs of babes

{May 13, 2009}   overheard at the reference desk

Today a student responded to a suggestion to search the library’s catalog with: “I know how to use the catalog. I’m just lazy.”

Welcome to our patron demographic. This is not the first time we’ve heard this sentiment (although not in such blatant terminology), and I doubt it will be the last. I once was reprimanded for referring to our patrons as “ignorant” (and not in a pejorative way), so I would never dare refer to them as lazy (at least not outright). But this came straight from the horse’s mouth!

I’ve mentioned it before, but patrons of art and design school libraries are known to prefer real, human reference interaction over searching via computer interface. But it makes me wonder: why do they prefer that? Are they really all just lazy, like that self-admitted student? Is it that the interface of the catalog is so unfriendly to artists and other visual types that it’s difficult for them to use? Are they in such a hurry and have such a short amount of time at their disposal between studio classes, jobs, homework, and other projects? Is it that a real, in-the-flesh person offers more authority and credibility in this age of Wikipedia and Google? Or maybe a human being is more sympathetic than an unfeeling computer screen, or better able to distill down to their actual information needs in a way the computer can’t? I’d guess that all of these things apply in one way or another, in some combination. And I confess, it baffles me personally, a girl who prefers to attempt to find things first on my own, only turning to actual people when other self-reliant methods are exhausted.

So what does it mean for cataloging, if patrons are “lazy”? Are we obligated to combat their laziness by directing them to use the catalog themselves? Or should we approach it from the customer service standpoint of fulfilling their information needs in the way that works best for them?


Beth says:

First of all, I LOVE that the student is so shameless about it.

Or maybe a human being is … better able to distill down to their actual information needs in a way the computer can’t?

All of these factors definitely seem to be in play, but in my patron group, this is the one that leads the pack. One of my circ clerks calls it the “what next?” factor: okay, I know the author I want, but I’m not sure how to spell her name, what next? I searched for the subject I think I need and didn’t get any hits, what next? The library doesn’t own this book, what next? The OPAC emerges as less an end unto itself than a reference interview tool.

In a public library, the answer is obvious: user experience absolutely trumps the teaching moment. (I’m in disagreement with my director over this, incidentally; she feels we should always, always be proactively teaching patrons to use self-directed tools rather than using expert assistance. But she is, after all, an academic reference librarian by training and, I think, temperament.) In an academic setting, it’s a little murkier, because you’re clearly dealing with more complex and sophisticated questions, and because among other things, you’re (theoretically, I suppose) teaching these kids to be independent scholars, and knowing how to “do the math” is not the same as being practiced at it. And then yet, art and design students are not typical academic students, with different skill sets, goals, and methods of inquiry than, say, baby engineers. :-D It would certainly fit within my own experience as an art student that for this particular group of users, the human interaction is the mode of inquiry, and the tools are simply incidental.

But those are all reference desk considerations. For the cataloguer, I suppose, the fundamental responsibility is to make the catalogue as robust, nuanced, and intuitive as possible. If it’s easier to get a quick answer from the catalogue than it is to go through the reference interview (because we have made the catalogue easy), they’ll use the damn catalogue. If it’s easier – or otherwise more desireable for any of the reasons kicked around above – to get the reference librarian to walk them through it, we need to make the ref desk’s job as easy as possible too.

(I’m also still mulling over your Twitter/FB/listserve post. I agree with you on all substantive points, but I think there’s more to be said there, and strong connections to this group of questions too.)

Michael says:

I know a few reference librarians who will be very unhappy (and might lose their jobs) if they were no longer able to sit and chat up the “lazy” folks who do not or “cannot” use the catalog or other computer/Internet sources for their information needs. I think some people (especially older patrons) who say they can use the catalog but prefer not to actually cannot use the catalog, or more to the point, they are pissed off that we don’t have a card catalog anymore! As a former reference worker, I usually gently offered to show people how to use the catalog, but they usually brushed me off like they brush you off (“I can, but I don’t wanna…”), so I forged ahead and did it myself. I guess that *was* part of my job ;-)

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