Sunday, May 17, 2015

Re-positioning libraries as safe spaces for answering career-related queries

I came across this news article about a young engineer who got two job offers (McGregor, 2015). He took to Quora, an online question-and-answer website, to ask for advice about which company's offer to accept. Representatives from both companies responded with one rescinding the job offer.

This caused me to reflect on my first publication (Scale, 2008) that compared how libraries matched up to Facebook as a "social search engine". While I will not go into a detailed summary of the journal article, I just wanted to make a few points about how this young engineer's problem highlight a missed opportunity for the positioning of libraries and highlight what I think libraries can do to change this.

Let me begin by mentioning that "social search" can be defined as the use of online platforms for locating individuals with the expertise to answer one's query (people search) or for locating information from search results informed by a community of users that input data into the online platform (human intermediary search) (Scale, 2008). Social search comes as a development of the Social Web or Web 2.0 era, where search engines and algorithms no longer dominate how users find relevant information online. Instead, human beings are now connecting online to retrieve information from online personal sources rather than documents.

This brings me to the points I wish to make in this post. How do libraries position themselves in this era?

1. Libraries need to position themselves as social search engines which preserve privacy, contain little to no advertising and maintain the confidentiality of queries.

2. Learn from Apple's Siri for i-Phone & i-Pad. Promote and provide a listing of the types of questions that we librarians can answer or are good at answering. 

Point 1

Librarians need to promote to library users the benefits of getting their answers from us as opposed to the online competition. Sure enough, online sources can get an individual quicker access to people sources and information, but online also leaves a trail and the Internet does not forget. Librarians though will forget.

We could even make this optional where users can be taken into a closed room, read a confidential non-disclosure agreement form to be signed by both the librarian and the library user, before the individual divulges their query.

This brings me to a concern about virtual reference, which keeps a virtual memory of queries and does not forget. Luckily, virtual reference services can do so with the removal of personal identifying information. Nonetheless, I find it on the side of caution that such system by requiring authentic users to login can still keep track of where queries are coming from. So I am still kind of wondering about this and need to research this some more.

Nonetheless, I would advocate for librarians to be selective of which technology or technical solutions are used for the purposes of virtual reference. Even when we use online platforms, ours must be distinctive from our competitors that collect personal information and maintain a public record of such information.

Point 2
I refer here to the experience of using Apple's Siri for i-Phone and i-Pad. Sometimes after using Siri, Apple's artificial intelligent virtual agent, I find that she presents a listing of some of the questions that she can answer and some of the information that she can provide.

How do library users know what questions to bring to the library reference desk? In my experience, as a library user, users coming to the reference desk get varied levels of service and do not know with certainty if a competent staff member will be on hand to handle their queries. One unhelpful experience is sufficient to prevent a user from being a return client.

Hence, it is necessary to reduce the chances of this uneven service delivery from happening in the first instance by highlighting what we are competent at answering. We must provide a way of assuring our patrons or users about the types of questions we can answer or provide information for and what they can expect us to answer or find answers for.

Even if we do not have the sources to answer all our users query, we should be able know where we can refer users and provide a list of questions for which we can refer users if we do not have the answers. That is, librarians should also know what areas we can competently advise users so that even if we do not have the answers in our library, we can advise users about where to go next and explain the pros and cons of getting the answers from the sources we refer them to. (In a way, this points to a need for deep subject expertise).

Some of the challenges

I do acknowledge that one of the challenges of doing this type of reference work is reduced library budgets and problematic staff shortages. In some libraries, the staff does not have the time to walk the users through a long decision-making process but stop short at just pointing them to the sources. This process makes the library little different from Google or original Web search that just directs users to the highest ranked or used sources that possess possible answers. This forces users to still have the work to determine the relevance and pros and cons of the sources retrieved. This is why I like the special library environment where librarians can provide a framework for extracting relevant and useful information and coming to a decision about which sources to use.

A possible way forward
For me, the young engineer's question could be viewed as a missed opportunity to re-position libraries to the wider public as safe spaces to ask questions and conduct inquiry, especially about career and entrepreneurial information. I for one believe that a dedicated career information resource librarian should be in every public library. This person would specialize in helping users answer career related queries and help them locate career-related information for all stages of an individual's career journey. These librarians should be dedicated to answering reference queries related to career, business or entrepreneurship questions ad questions about choosing educational programs.

Nonetheless, every public library should know its users and the questions that users are most likely to need answers for and provide a dedicated subject librarian to address those questions. Again I realize that this is an ideal in the present time of austerity and economic uncertainty. As such, I lament that we need greater advocacy to let politicians, economists and other authorities that make funding decisions know that the quality of library services depend on the type of deep expertise that we provide in areas that are important to communities. For example, seeing that current authorities are interested in job creation, we can advocate that libraries can provide value to the labour market and the economy if given sufficient funding and staff to provide a dedicated librarian for career and business related questions. Of course, I realize that this means focusing on priorities that fit into the neo-liberal paradigm in which libraries are now working.


McGregor, J. (2015, May 7). A young engineer asked for career advice online. Big mistake. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Scale, M. (2008). Facebook as a social search engine and the implications for libraries in the twenty-first century. Library Hi Tech, 26, (4), p. 540-56.

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