Abram on Tech and Relationships

Some thoughts on the recent Stephen Abram essay making the rounds on the internet.  His article, “From Evolution to Revolution to Chaos? Reference in Transition?” in the September 2008 edition of Information Today is a call to arms.  Abram reminds us that it is unhealthy for ourselves and our profession if we are remain stuck in the mud with other reference “dinosaurs” instead of living in the present and looking to the future of the librarianship profession that consists of our constant and willing interaction with people and technology.  This is in no part a new call: the past ten years has altered education and librarianship by making teachers, instructors, and librarians more and more mediators between information and people through technology; our literature has produced a countless number of calls for (and admittedly against) the movement.

Abram’s article reinforces the resounding purpose of librarianship: service.  In spite of the all the new techs that can aid the user in his or her search, and no matter how adept the user might become at navigating one library’s outdated OPAC or another database’s boolean logic, the information profession needs to find new and novel ways to assert its ability to help others find, compile, and analyse data.  Some may object to Abram’s suggestion that we all join online simulations of the real world such as Second Life in order to reach out to others; others might reject the idea of the “service librarian” who roams the stacks, like a clerk in Chapters or Borders asking customers if they need help, but both activities are part of a growing culture of helping others in ways we might not have traditionally expected.

A few of Abram’s words resonate in this demand for service, especially those statements that speak of the “psychology” of librarianship and of service.  Abram suggests that “[w]e need to understand, and understand deeply, the role of the library in our end-users’ lives, work, research, and play. This is critical to our long-term success, and failure is not an option,” and holds that “we have to change our own personal behaviors and styles to adapt and reach beyond merely adding websites, technologies, and content to our toolkits.”  These two statements may be off-the-cuff remarks or opinions developed after years of thought and rumination in the business.  Or, they might be incredibly prescient about the present, and the future of information science (and “information service”).  Libraries, we’re all well aware, are more than a collection of books, computers, and archival material.  They are nerve-centres of human activity and human interaction.  Librarians, therefore, must make a wide-sweeping reference interview of the entire library-going population and determine why they go to the library and how they use the library’s resources.  Librarians need to determine what’s ‘going on in the heads’ of its users so that they can adopt to meet their needs.  This going beyond the question of technology.  The population will master the computer soon or later – we know that already.  The population will often find the information they’re looking for.  We need to gauge the population, rather, and learn about them, in order to figure out how to help them find the golden kernel of truth they’re looking for in an efficient time period. Technology can be a tool to help us with this macro-reference interview.  It should not be tool to give more strength to the gatekeepers.  It should be the tool used to liberate the user, the information, and the reference librarian.

Abram reminds us that “Our profession is complex. Our markets are complex. and our users are infinitely complex.” Whether or not such a statement is sheer wisdom or a rhetorical device, it ought to remind us of the fact that our profession is as much (if not more) about people than it is about information.  Information is a human construct.  It serves us, but only when we find it and share it with others.  Tech can help us in that regard, but it remains a tool subordinate to our relationship with the end-user.

This is nothing we don’t already know.  But it’s everything we need to keep reminding ourselves.

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