BackTalk: Connect to Nearby Remote Users

By David Isaacson

Ironically, many of the users who sit only a few feet away from us in the public service area of the library are our real remote users. I mean remote users not in its rather new sense to describe people whom we help via live reference chat, email reference, the telephone, the fax machine, or expedited resource sharing. Some of the users I feel closest to I have never met face to face, while others, seated close by the reference desk, may as well be on Mars.

Some of our potential users are quite content to operate our OPACs in ways that please them and seem, moreover, to get the job done. They poke around on the web and find what they want, most of the time without our help. Never mind that what they want is not what they really need. Unless we are very dip-lomatic, some of these psychologically remote but physically near users are likely to become even more estranged from us.

The lure of the web

Some students find even the best-intentioned librarians intimidating. Sure, they will ask for our help when an assignment is opaque without us, or when the professor requires them to seek us out. But many students don't want to admit they're clueless about research. Besides, they think they can Google their way out of any research problem without us. Many students really are in a different, isolated, yet beguiling world of their own. Since virtually anything they are curious about can be found in virtual space, why bother a librarian? The web is not simply alluring but hypnotizing. It provides a comforting pseudointellectual placebo in the place of the real intellectual medicine of informed research. Even if your library does not enable sound cards and quick-time video, streaming video, ubiquitous pop-up ads, and all manner of other electronic bells and whistles can trump mere words.

The language of some sites supposedly devoted to the objective dissemination of information is often so chatty there's no effort in reading it. Live chat is sometimes a close cousin to idle chatter. It's no accident someone invented the verb websurfing. Websurfing is often as purposeless, but also as thrilling, as riding the waves off Santa Monica. Surfing is recreation, not something a teacher requires. And there's always the illusion of human contact whenever a web page invites interactivity. If you find something you like surfing, you can always save it to email or share it with a friend.

Students who wouldn't dream of talking with a live librarian chat nonstop to friends - and strangers - through email. And some librarians, who ought to know better, encourage this behavior. Some, in fact, go so far as to say that whatever patrons want they should get. Some librarians are themselves remote users; they are so enchanted by answering questions remotely they neglect the unserved patrons adjacent to the reference desk who are obviously puzzled about something on their terminal but are too shy to ask for help. Ironically, we would help these poor students if they only took the trouble to ask their questions on live chat or email.

Keep it tangible

When I walk through the public service area of our reference room and ask a seemingly nonintrusive question like "Are you finding what you're needing?" some people are glad I asked. But others, clearly, are bothered by my question, even though I try not to act like a buttinsky. As with video games and TVs, OPACs are not simply interfaces, they are in our faces. The terminals can make impossible measured conversations, let alone semiformal bibliographic information tutorials. For many students, the rich and exciting opportunities for interactive learning that are possible via the web often take a distant second to its primary function as a source of infotainment that increasingly substitutes for real information. Like TV, the web is a much less demanding medium than print. Critical reading skills are hard to teach when they have to compete with bouncy cartoons, lavish photos of celebrities, and invitations to take free trips to exotic places. Too many students in the library may as well be in the computer center, their dorm rooms, or a cyber café.

Librarians who want to teach research skills have stiff competition for students' attention. We have had success using gimmicks and games to lure them into seeing the net as a research tool, but we are fighting an uphill battle. Many students have made up their minds that whatever they key into their laptops or our public terminals is their own business. Sure, their "regular" teachers still exert the power to control their behavior by assigning grades. Librarians have it harder because we have to convince students our service has a practical payoff.

It really is a shame when librarians are closer to users in cyberspace than to the patron sitting clueless a few feet away. I try to break the ice a bit by joking with reluctant students: "Shall we interface for a few minutes?" This joke isn't very funny anymore.

Author Information
David Isaacson is Assistant Head of Reference and Humanities Librarian, Waldo Library, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing