Thoughts on Mobile Reference

Digital librarians spend a lot of time thinking about online and mobile reference. Reference is the core service of libraries—helping people find the information they need is what librarians have been doing for centuries.

We need to explore methods to translate reference services into digital environments. I’m happy to see all the work being done on this front.

One of the concerns that comes up pretty often in discussions of mobile reference is the competition with online, crowd-sourced Q&A services like Yahoo Answers. The more I think about it, though, the more I’m convinced that this concern is a red herring.

I don’t believe that libraries should try to compete with these services. Because I’m not at all convinced that libraries should be in the business of casual Q&A.

People’s relationship to information is becoming increasingly casual. But even with the increasingly casual and impulsive nature of people’s relationship to information, some questions are still more important than others. Sometimes people still need extra help finding answers. Those are the questions where libraries can do the most good.

Let Yahoo and others handle the casual, impulsive stuff. We’ll be there when people need something more than that.

Which brings me to the real central issue facing online and mobile reference services: information literacy.

Libraries have long had the responsibility of promoting information literacy. In the mobile age, the core skill of information literacy is the ability to evaluate and assess the quality of the information you find, to know what’s good and what’s bad, what’s reliable and what should be discarded.

But even that’s not enough—people need to understand why they should bother. Why is it important to go through the work of assessment and evaluation?

Why should they come to the library for some questions and not rely on Yahoo Answers for everything?

The thing that makes mobile information environments valuable to people is the convenience they offer. Convenience has become the most sought after virtue of the mobile age. Assessing and evaluating information takes time and effort—a process substantially at odds with the convenience of mobile information environments.

It comes down to the perception of value in different situations. Someone may recognize the value of an authoritative answer when they’re standing at the reference desk in their local library. But when they’re sitting at home and they impulsively Google something on their tablet, it doesn’t automatically follow that they recognize the value of authority in that situation. The casualness, the impulsivity, the sheer convenience of the environment affects the perceived value of the information they find.

People need to see the benefit of sacrificing some convenience in order to find better information. People need to understand why it’s better for them.

Libraries can teach this “why” far better than any crowd-sourced online Q&A service.

Libraries need to teach people the value of authority and quality across all information environments. That’s what a mobile library needs to do to truly succeed.

Mobile reference services won’t succeed based on how convenient and casual they can be. Reference won’t flourish by undermining its authority.

Mobile reference services will succeed based on how well they teach information literacy. It must be embedded in a larger context of outreach and education.

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