SOCIAL INFORMATICS AND REFERENCE
The expansion of virtual communications and the advent of user determined information access services such as Google has led to dramatically changing expectations for and from academic library reference services. No longer do students expect to receive information from gateway individuals such as reference librarians. Instead, self-access is now the norm. Ask a student a research question, and likely the first thing they will do is head for Google.com, not the library. This paradigm shift in the way students expect to gain knowledge can be best understood through social informatics, the way in which technology affects communities and vice versa. Understanding the intersection of these two subjects, technology and those who use it, is of vital importance to the future of library reference services because of the broad reaching implications of perceptual changes regarding information science and access to information.
Social informatics is a developing, interdisciplinary study of “the design, uses and consequences of information technologies that takes into account their interaction with institutional and cultural contexts” (Sawyer and Rosenbaum in He, 2000, p. 121). Social informatics addresses the reality that information and communication technologies (ICTs) and the communities that use them do not exist in vacuums, but rather are dependent on each other for mutual development. Technology changes people as much as people change technology. As Edwards writes, “technological change is…a social process: Technologies can and do have ‘social impacts,’ but they are simultaneously social products that embody power relationships and social goals and structures” (Kilker and Gay, 1998, p. 60). Sawyer and Rosenbaum (2000) provide the example of wiring schools for internet access in the United States as one that shows how technology and communities must develop together to be fully realized. While those supporting this endeavor believe “that access to the Internet will improve students’ educational experiences and will prepare them for jobs in the ‘information society’”, the technological improvement of creating access alone is not enough to ensure this. Classrooms are often separated from computer labs, and the majority of instructors in the United States do not have the training necessary to make networked computers a part of their curricula (Sawyer and Rosenbaum 2000, p. 92). It is only through the concurrent development of both the technology to support the community and the community’s understanding of how to utilize technology that any benefit will be found. Much as Marx criticized Feuerbach’s extreme stance on the material origins of technology by showing how humans are always changing their environment, so no basic material can exist independently of human interaction, thus human ideas and activities will have an effect on their material context (Feuer, 1959).
Skip ahead to the twenty-first century and a similar paradigm shift is taking place with the advent of internet technologies. Our very definitions of community are changing based on the increase in accessibility provided by networked individuals. With so many people and groups online now, our distinctions between online and offline life are fast disappearing. An examination of young people and online communication makes this abundantly clear. Online communication has taken on a new role in the lives of those who use it. Once the redheaded stepchild of communication studies, virtual communities now claim a justifiable standing as an important part of the exchange of ideas between people. How people express themselves on screen relates to how they connect to people in daily life. Social values shaped by online interactions affect face-to-face interaction. The “first-level impacts of virtual communities”, as Rheingold (1993, p. 150) describes it affect the “second-level impacts” on real-life relationships. Society no longer shapes technology so much as it is shaped by it. “When so many of our human relationships are mediated by communications technology”, (Rheingold, 1993, p. 150) it is no surprise that a medium specifically designed for communication should have such an effect.
More and more people use the internet as an adjunct to traditional “real world” communication. Young people, clearly the group most responsible for transforming the internet from research tool to social lubricant, participate in online networks that “blur the distinctions between online and real-world interactions” (Hempel, 2005, p. 89). A conversation online now holds the same value as a face-to-face one. Instant messaging someone or talking with a group on IRC (internet relay chat) can no longer be viewed as a novelty, but rather as an alternative form of dialogue. Given the ease of online connections, college students would often rather chat with someone online than expend the effort to seek their friends out in person, or even call them on the phone. Many will chat online with friends in the same room, maintaining friendships in the unreality of the virtual world despite their physical proximity to each other (Hempel, 2005, p. 87).
Here we have an example of the internet as a tool of democratization, allowing for what Seabrook describes as a “many-to-many” rather than a “one-to-many” consumer culture (Seabrook, 1997, p. 198). Multiple producers of culture become multiple consumers of culture, creating a potentially infinite variety of cultural sources and an exponentially larger amount of information. If the internet “represents the greatest decentralization in the dissemination of information since the printing press” (Seabrook, 1997, p. 86) then it also represents a dissemination of the authority that comes with both writing and access to knowledge. Decentralization and the increase of accessibility have served to create a new paradigm of information access.
This use of the internet as part and parcel of daily life has affected the modern view of information access just as much as it has communications theory. Online information access is viewed as unmediated because individuals can supposedly access any knowledge they want. Yet search engines and algorithms are a form of mediation in that those sites most often visited by previous searchers are the most promoted (Google Technology, 2004) thus becoming a mediation of the masses rather than the individual. While the web provides access to countless esoteric data, more and more the information rising to the top is that most commonly held. The assumption that accessibility equals integrity has created a social dynamic which favors superficial subject knowledge rather than in depth knowledge (Day, 1998)
The massive increase in points of accessibility of information has been equaled only by the decrease in research time associated with information access. Access to information is increasingly becoming near instantaneous, with the expectation of being able to find knowledge within a few keystrokes or mouse clicks increasing along with it. This paradigm views the internet as a kind of giant electronic brain that can answer any question. It postulates that “since such an answer could be known, it should be known” (Seabrook, 1997, p. 54). This brings with it a new set of problems for students unforeseen until now. Students are both expected to and expect themselves to already know information before they’ve had the chance to learn it, simply because so much is now available.
In libraries, this development is having a significant affect on reference desk usage. When a student asks for help at a reference desk, they are in essence saying, “I don’t know”, and that they need help finding information. If the social paradigm is shifting to expect self-access to knowledge, and students expect they should have more knowledge because more information is available, then the social perceptions of saying “I don’t know” are shifting as well. The two acts are dichotomous. In a setting as public as a reference desk is, often the central point of a library floor, then they are directly and immediately contraindicative. If libraries want to maintain their reference services, then they must find a way to work within a paradigm that disallows students from publicly seeking assistance, since that is more and more becoming an embarrassing proposition for them. The least-common-denominator mediation occurring also needs to be addressed, else knowledge that is not immediately apparent become the norm. While the internet may have the answers to potentially any question, it is also the largest intellectual garbage can ever created, and provides as many wrong answers as it does right ones.
The most likely solution to this problem is to utilize the very technology that is causing it. If students are more comfortable using a computer to find information than asking someone sitting at a desk, and the person at the desk can help them, whether they are embarrassed to ask or not, then the time has come to put the person at the desk inside the computer. Virtual reference services are easily the biggest development in library services since the card catalog, and will have an even greater affect on the future of libraries (Sears, 2001). Already, libraries are changing their paradigms to reflect student desire and need. The Flawn Academic Center at the University of Texas in Austin recently removed its entire collection of print materials, over 90,000 volumes, in favor of a digital library. Nor are they alone – academic libraries across the world are following suit (Deahl, 2005). This is, though, perhaps the most extreme example of the confluence of digital technology and libraries, and certainly one of the newest.
Virtual reference services have been in libraries even longer than computers have. Telephone reference service, though not considered virtual in our modern interpretation of the word, is by definition a virtual service. Over the phone, library patrons can get answers to their reference questions without the need to enter a library, in the comfort of their homes of offices, at their time of immediate need (provided the library is open and answering,) and without any embarrassment from publicly asking for help. Email reference service, while not as instantaneous as the telephone or new chat reference services, has also been a part of library culture for years, providing librarians not only an opportunity to receive questions at irregular hours, but also giving them the chance to collect their information together prior to the start of the reference “session” in their response. In both modalities, further consultations can, and often are, suggested and/or requested. Virtual reference is often merely the first step in providing service, and can be an effective tool for bringing students “in the door” to traditional reference services. Library web sites have also been around for years, and have grown and expanded the services they provide. Once simply ways to let patrons know about hours and phone numbers, library web sites are now fully interactive user tools for patrons. Entire catalogs are accessible online, and students can request books from around the world to be delivered to their local school or public library branch without ever talking to a live person. Online databases are even more of a staple in libraries than books for many students, providing collated access to scholarly and peer-reviewed articles for students still in high school, rather than only professionals established in their fields. Cutting edge research can now be disseminated to those who are still learning about the field of study, increasing the likelihood of future researchers advancing the general work being done more so than ever before. And completely virtual libraries such as the Internet Public Library have been around since 1995, while online information clearinghouses such as the Electronic Access to Reference Services (EARS) site have existed since 1984 (Wasik, 1999). The transfer of libraries from physical to virtual services is nothing new, and the shift from desk to online reference services is simply the next logical step in following students and patrons to where they already are.
While many have feared that the reference librarian is becoming an anachronistic fixture in the modern library, this analysis shows that is not the case. Sociological shifts of belief about access to information are taking place, and these fundamental changes are affecting our notions of power, authority, and knowledge itself. But even with the advent of expanded access to information and a viable many-to-many producer/consumer culture of knowledge, there still exists the need for individual mediation at multiple levels. Virtual reference services can work hand in hand with self-guided access to information by giving students clues for how to sort information rather than leading them to it. It can also ensure that knowledge which can only be gleaned by more thorough searching is brought to the fore, thus increasing the likelihood that it will become common knowledge and brought to mass consciousness. We are at a crossroads in our sociological development in regards to information access and its impact on culture. It behooves us to utilize every resource at our disposal to better understand it and guarantee we make the most of whatever changes are happening.
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