Conveying Authority

When I was in school to get my MLIS, I had an assignment in my Reference class to observe reference librarians in real-world situations. I sat in at the reference desk at my local branch of the Chicago Public Library over the course of several days. I noticed something odd about the way the reference librarians dressed at this branch: sometimes they dressed in more formal professional attire – long-sleeved, button-up shirts and ties for the men; blouses and skirts, or dresses for the women – but at other times they dressed very casually; sometimes the same librarian would be dressed professionally one day, and the next day casually. I saw no rhyme or reason to this.

I asked about it, and learned that they were conducting an informal in-house experiment: older librarians, who were used to working with professional dress codes, still advocated for more formal attire at the desk; whereas younger librarians, fresh out of school, argued that casual attire would make them more relatable to patrons, who would therefore feel more comfortable about approaching them. They were testing each theory to find out which was correct.

There were two librarians at the reference desk at all times. They would change up the dress code at random: sometimes both would be professionally attired, sometimes both would be casual, and sometimes there would be one of each. Accounting for other variables (time of day, day of week, type of patron, etc.), and dismissing non-reference interactions (computer sign-up, asking directions to the rest rooms, etc.), the results of the experiment were conclusive:

Professionally attired reference librarians were approached by patrons with reference questions more than twice as often as casually dressed librarians.

They conducted some follow-up interviews with patrons to find out why they were more likely to approach professionally attired librarians. The answer was simple and, in retrospect, fairly obvious:

Patrons go to the reference desk when they need help with something that they can’t figure out or find on their own. They don’t want someone who’s just like them – they want someone who knows what they’re doing. They want a professional, someone trained, someone with the authority to successfully guide them. In basically all human societies, people convey their authority by the way they dress – uniforms have meaning for us. In our society, formal professional attire connotes experience and expertise. It makes you look like you know what you’re doing.

[I recognize that these are the results of one informal experiment conducted by one neighborhood branch of one public library system. These results may not be replicable by any other library or indicative of the needs and attitudes of library patrons universally. But this experience did influence the way I think about the role of authority in libraries.]

If library patrons look for authority when they interact with librarians, it begs a question: how do libraries convey their authority online, through our websites and mobile apps, when there’s no direct face-to-face interaction?

How do you put a long-sleeved, button-up shirt and a tie on a website?

To be honest, this isn’t a terribly insightful question. Web design already has standards that are very good at conveying a sense of authority.

A more pertinent question might be this:

When it comes to online library-patron interactions, does authority still matter in the same way that it does in face-to-face interactions?

As I’ve noted before, with the increasing ubiquity of mobile access, people’s relationship to information is becoming more casual and impulsive. Maybe authority isn’t what our patrons are looking for in an online library presence.

While I acknowledge this possibility, my gut tells me otherwise. After all, whenever someone asks the question, “Why bother with the library when I can just search Google?” – inevitably, the answer is this now-famous quote from Neil Gaiman, “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.”

Authority matters, more so now than ever. In a society awash in more information – both good and bad – than has ever existed before in our entire history, with easy access opening the floodgate for more people than ever before, and with technology making it easier than ever for anyone to create and share information online, knowing which information is the best and most accurate is more challenging than it’s ever been. Access to information is fast outpacing information literacy skills. Letting people know the unique authority libraries offer, and teaching people the value of that authority, is of paramount importance in a world of digital information and access.

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