BackTalk: Serve Their Needs, Not Their Wants

By David Isaacson

If you couldn't be both, what would you rather be: popular or right? As individuals, most of us want to think we'd choose to be right. But as a profession, I don't think we've been that brave. We place too much emphasis on public relations, not nearly enough on substance.

We should stop thinking of our users as customers and stop trying so hard to compete with, for example, Barnes & Noble. Booksellers, after all, are out to make a profit. As librarians, we should be educating users and making knowledge more accessible and functional - and if we don't get our educational act together soon, the people we call our users won't use us for much more than recreation.

Sift, refine, check

It's no surprise why this sorry state has come to pass. As a profession, we're too afraid of losing our once vaunted ability to answer reference questions to Google, Wikipedia, and the whole populist culture of the Internet.

Although Google and Wikipedia work just fine if a question is unambiguous and the answer comes from a truly objective source, too many librarians are letting the users' penchant for convenience and speed come before accuracy and true relevance. We are less and less willing to tell ourselves, let alone our patrons, that some questions need to be sifted, refined, checked in multiple sources, and perhaps even reframed before they can be answered adequately.

We are professional librarians, and we should dare to act the part. Other professionals aren't afraid to act like they have special knowledge and abilities nonprofessionals don't have. We go to physicians because we don't have the medical knowledge to heal ourselves. We go to lawyers because we don't know how to represent ourselves in court or interpret the law. If we as librarians know something about identifying, finding, and interpreting information sources that nonlibrarians don't (and we'd better), we must demonstrate that expertise.


For one, today's reference librarians should seek to answer the questions patrons mean to ask - which, as any experienced professional librarian will tell you, is not usually the first question. Only an experienced professional librarian has the patience, the knowledge, and the motivation to conduct a reference interview to find out what a user really needs. Some of our potential users are too impatient; they want their questions answered immediately. We must do a better job of explaining that answering the question right away does not always mean answering it correctly. Convenience doesn't trump accuracy, nor should simplicity trump the truth.

We have invested far too much of our professional time and money accommodating ourselves to this burgeoning quick-fix culture, when we should invest more in talking directly with our users. Chat reference, for example, is fine for long-distance patrons. But to be truly effective, we should exert even more control over it so that it is useful for serious reference questions and doesn't come off as a public relations gimmick. We must dare to teach our users how to develop better ways of framing reference questions.

What users need

Don't get me wrong. I like the libertarian freedom and convenience of our fast-information culture. But as a profession, how many librarians are ready and willing to be authoritative teachers, willing to say to patrons, 'I think the question you are asking can't be answered the way you're asking it,' or, 'That question is one that requires more thought and seems to have more than one answer. I can't just give you an answer, but I can show you how to help yourself better.'

No, the librarian isn't always right. I am not advocating some elitist and condescending attitude to the public. But we often seem to act as if the user is always right, and that is just as foolish an extreme. If we continue to try simply to please our users with what they say they want, we might as well give up all pretense of being educators. No, we don't always know what's best for the public. But often, neither do our users know what's best until they actually have a discussion with an informed librarian, not merely a 'have-a-nice-day' chat with one of our well-intentioned, eternally smiling, but not necessarily well-informed 'service providers.'

It's up to us

It's up to librarians to help patrons use libraries better. For too long we have been overeager in giving the public what they think they want rather than help them figure out what they really need. We don't need Wal-Mart greeters in our libraries. We need dedicated professionals who can talk about resources as easily as they can smile and make folks feel welcome.

Author Information
David Isaacson recently retired after 32 years at the Waldo Library of Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo.

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