The Pain of Bad Reference Interactions

People love to ask the question, “Why go to the library when you can just Google everything?” In answer, we tend to fall back on some version of Neil Gaiman’s famous quote:

Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.

We talk about the authority of librarians, our ability to sift through the vast oceans of data with a far better eye toward quality than any search engine can match. We talk about the personalization of the interaction—librarians can recognize not just the right answer, but the answer that’s right for you.

Often, people don’t know how to ask their question. Google is stuck with whatever you enter—if you ask your question the wrong way then you only get results that aren’t what you need, and you’re left to your own devices to try and figure out what went wrong. A librarian can figure out what you really meant and guide your search, to bring you information that’s actually useful in a much more intuitive and rewarding way.

I agree with all of the above. Librarians can serve people’s information needs in ways that Google, or any other online search engine, simply can’t.

Which is why it especially pains me every time I have a bad reference interaction.

Because the other main difference between librarians and Google is that librarians are human beings, and some of us are lazy, incompetent, burnt out, or just having a bad day. Google never falters—it must answer your question according to the dictates of its programming, and it must do so every single time.

Librarians can blow people off, make mistakes, condescend, and sometimes closing the transaction as quickly as possible (to boost our job performance metrics, to get open tickets out of our queue) is more important to us than being thorough.

Visiting the reference department in a library shouldn’t feel like banging your head against a wall. But sometimes it really does.

Google can’t handle the imprecision and vagaries of human communication nearly as well as a librarian can—but Google also can’t fail in its job the way librarians can, and sometimes do.

Which is unfortunate, because every time I have a bad reference interaction it makes we wish I’d just Googled my question instead.

I don’t know what point I’m trying to make with this post. I’m venting, obviously, but I’m also trying to sort out my thoughts. Because I’ve had enough bad reference interactions to worry me. Enough to make me wonder how many bad reference interactions each of our patrons have experienced.

If a patron has too many bad reference interactions, then Mr. Gaiman’s quote ceases to be true for them.

The greatest strength of a library is that we offer personal, human interactions. But it also means that we’re subject to all of the faults and missteps of human beings. Without proper quality control in our reference environments, those failings too easily outweigh the benefits of human interaction.

Too many bad reference interactions, and we drive our own patrons right into Google’s arms.

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