Public Library Reference: An Unscientific Test

I debated for several weeks about writing this post. Some of what I want to talk about I already discussed in my post, The Pain of Bad Reference Interactions. I think there’s more to say, though.

My concern is that I have some strong criticisms of the reference interactions I’ve had with some public libraries in the United States. I use no names and I leave out all identifying details—but it’s still possible that some of these libraries, or even some of their librarians, will be able to recognize themselves if they read this.

I have no desire to shame anyone with this post. I find online public shaming culture abhorrent and I refuse to participate in it.

I believe that criticism is necessary for improvement. I offer all criticisms in the sincere hope that it will help us all to serve our communities even better than we already do, and in my desire to help define the best path forward for public libraries in the Digital Information Age.


The Question

I recently conceived a desire to read the four classic novels of China. However, I don’t know which English translations are best. This struck me as an ideal question to take to my local library—it’s about reading and it could make a decent research project.

I decided to conduct a test to see how a variety of public library reference departments would handle it. I chose ten public libraries in the United States, more or less at random, and submitted the following question to them, via their websites:

I’m interested in reading the four great classical novels of China. “Water Margin,” “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” “Journey to the West,” and “Dream of the Red Chamber.” I can’t read any form of Chinese so I need English translations. I’m hoping that you could recommend the best ones.

I want to read them for pleasure. While I’d like good translations that do justice to these works, I don’t want scholarly or academic treatments. Which English translations should I look for? And does your library have them?

I think it’s clear that what I wanted was a list of good translations for a casual reader, if any such exist.

Half of the ten libraries I queried used a web-based service such as LibAnswers. Four had online contact forms on their websites. One only accepted online reference questions via email.


The Answers

Five of the ten libraries responded with some version of this:

“Thank you for contacting [public library]. We have the following titles in our catalog: [names two or three of the novels].”

And that’s it. Plus standard salutations, closings, boilerplate, etc.

  • None of the libraries who sent this type of response included any information about the translators or explained why these translations fit my stated needs.

  • None of them provided any information about the titles that weren’t in their collections, so I had no useful information to try and find them elsewhere.

  • Every one of these responses included a four volume translation of Journey to the West published by the University of Chicago Press. Most included a title that’s a scholarly analysis of classic Chinese literature and not actually a translation of any of the novels.

    Given that I specifically stated that I didn’t want academic or scholarly treatments, I’m left with the conclusion that none of these libraries bothered to read my question in full, nor did they pay any close attention to their own catalog search results.

  • Most of these responses included links to the titles in their catalog but some didn’t even bother to do that. A few included links to their ILL departments.

The quickest response I received came 61 minutes after I submitted the request. There’s absolutely no possible way the librarian who wrote the response could have conducted any real research into my question in that amount of time. They pretty much just blew me off. The other four libraries responded within 48 hours.

Three libraries responded with some version of this:

“Thank you for contacting [public library]. We have the following titles in our catalog: [names two or three of the novels]. Here are records in WorldCat for [the titles that aren’t in our catalog].”

This is a slight improvement over the first type of response but not by much.

  • Again, none bothered to tell me anything about the translators or why these translations fit my needs.

  • These responses also included scholarly translations and lit analysis titles.

  • Some of these respondents included links to request titles via ILL but not all.

All of these libraries responded within two or three days.

One library sent me the following email 68 hours after I submitted my question to them:

“Thank you for using the library’s online reference service. Your request has been forwarded to our fiction librarian [name & email address]. [They] should respond to you directly.”

As of this writing, it’s been a month and half since I was told that a librarian would contact me and I’m still waiting for an answer.

Only one of the public libraries I contacted with this request provided an actual substantive answer to my question:

  • They named Pearl Buck’s version of Water Margin, published under the title, All Men Are Brothers, with the note that “it’s apparently a bit inaccurate but readable if that’s what you’re looking for.” If I wanted more accuracy, Sidney Shapiro published a multi-volume translation as Outlaws of the Marsh.

  • For Romance of the Three Kindoms, they recommended Moss Roberts’ translations, in either the thousand-page unabridged version or the “much more readable Three Kingdoms. (only 318 pages!)”

  • For Journey to the West, they recommended The Monkey and the Monk by Anthony Yu and also noted the standard four volume translation from the UofC Press.

  • The only English translations of Dream of the Red Chamber they were able to locate were academic, multi-volume versions. A five-volume edition of it under the title The Story of Stone was the only one of the four classic novels they held in their collection.

  • They provided WorldCat and catalog links to all titles, as well as a link to their ILL request form.

I received this response just over 24 hours after submitting my question.


The Analysis

As a testament to the value of reference services in our public libraries… this isn’t good. I got unacceptably poor responses from the majority of the libraries I contacted. Most made it clear they couldn’t be bothered with my question. Only one library took the time to find real answers for me.

Admittedly, my query probably isn’t representative of the most common types of reference questions that public libraries receive and my selection of libraries to test was entirely unscientific.

If I were a patron and this is the kind of dismissive, can’t-be-bothered type of response I got, I doubt I’d turn to my library for help again after that. I wonder how many patrons we’ve lost over the years because of transactions like this.

But there’s a deeper issue underlying all this that bothers me even more:

The best answer I got to my reference question, the only one that actually told me what I wanted to know, still didn’t offer me anything that I hadn’t found on my own using Google. * And whereas I had to wait over 24 hours to get an answer from that library, Googling it took me less than half an hour.

So I turn once again to the famous quote from Neil Gaiman:

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

As far as my reference interactions went—no. That’s simply not true. Mr. Gaiman’s praise is incorrect.

And even the one good answer I got… It was much faster for me to just Google it for myself.


The Conclusion

This, then, shows us a better way for libraries to help our patrons and to prove our true worth in the Digital Information Age:

The reason I was able to find good information quickly using Google is because I know how to use Google properly. I know how to phrase search queries effectively, how to assess a results list and gauge the quality of what I see there. I have a strong sense of when it’s worth clicking past the first couple pages of results and when it’s a lost cause. When a search fails to return the kind of results I expected, I know how to rephrase my search to do better.

There are a whole lot of people out there who don’t have this knowledge or skill set. Traditional reference models—finding answers to people’s questions each time they come to us—is only one way for us to serve them. And for some, that’s all they want.

But for those patrons who are willing to learn, I would much rather teach them how to find the answers they need for themselves, how to be effective and empowered information seekers. I would rather teach them how to use Google.

Libraries have long held information literacy efforts to be a core responsibility of the services we render to our communities. The necessity for this service only increases as our world becomes increasingly saturated with information. The need to teach people how to be effective and discerning information seekers has never been more important.

When people ask why we need libraries in the age of Google, maybe we shouldn’t trot out that ubiquitous Gaiman quote.

Maybe we should turn to the old proverb about teaching people to fish, instead.

* According to my own Google searches, the most popular and well-known English translation of Journey to the West is a condensed version of the novel titled Monkey by Arthur Waley. It’s worth noting that none of the libraries I contacted—not even the one library that gave me a good answer—identified this edition. It’s also worth noting that over half of the public libraries I contacted have Waley’s Monkey in their collections, which makes it even more concerning that none of them found it in response to my inquiry.

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