Attention, Time-Wasters

It’s not often that a professional interaction makes me angry. However, I had an odd experience tonight. During my regular Sunday evening chat reference shift I ended up being lectured by a library school student from an unnamed library school at a large public university in New Jersey about how my reference service needs improvement. As part of an assignment for a reference class, the library school student was supposed to go out and pester actual librarians with fake reference questions to see how they responded. I’ve read a bit about this ethically dubious practice, and in addition am able to spot a fake reference transaction pretty quickly. (Hint to library school students posing as fake reference patrons–I do this for a living. I can tell when you’re lying to me.) Something seemed fishy to me, so ultimately I responded with our standard line. Our reference service is for Princeton faculty and students or questions specific to the Princeton collection. Oh, and I don’t answer general reference questions from library school students at some other university. Then came the admission that the whole reference transaction was fake. What a surprise! And then the lecture. Spare me!

Is this what reference education is about these days? Are the students supposed to go out and waste the time of professional librarians? Because that was the impression I was left with. This student was a great big time-waster who had the erroneous opinion that a reference service at a private university should act as a general reference service for anyone in the entire world. I praised the librarians at the university the student attends and recommended the student approach them. Apparently, this wasn’t good enough. Instead, I should have played along with the game (which I suspected was a game) and spent a half hour of my time searching for items which no one actually wanted. That, apparently, is the sign of good reference service. So because I refused to help a fairly obvious liar, which is what this student was, somehow my reference service needs improvement?

What needs improvement is reference education, if this is what it has sunk to. Do teachers of reference think that librarians have nothing better to do than spend time answering fake reference questions from fake library patrons? Especially if those fake patrons more or less give the game away by saying they’re library school students at some other university who need help with a simplistic question a college sophomore would be able to answer? What else are we actual librarians to suspect given such information other than that we’re being conned? Reference librarians tend to be pretty savvy about these things. I don’t know about other reference librarians, but I resent being approached by obvious liars whose intent is to waste my time, especially when these liars are put up to their lies by their professors and then have the nerve to get self-righteous when I catch them and refuse to help them. I would be happy to help library school students or answer questions about what I do or allow students to see how I work. But that’s not what this practice is about. If students come in with obviously fake questions, it’s not my practice to play along with them. That’s not reference education. That’s a big waste of my time.

Attention, time wasters: please leave real librarians alone. Some of us have work to do.

[Since this post has been getting some new hits lately, readers should see the two follow-up posts: The Ethics of Fake Reference, and Alternatives to Deception.]

12 thoughts on “Attention, Time-Wasters

  1. I agree with you that the student should have asked the question through a service meant to serve them and that they definitely shouldn’t have lectured you (ugh!), but I don’t think there would have been anything wrong with the student contacting a librarian at a library meant to serve them. To call the student an “obvious liar whose intent is to waste my time” is really awful. Students are assigned all the time to find certain pieces of information that they end up “bothering” us with. Maybe it’s a difficult (for them) to find criminal justice statistic. Maybe it’s some obscure piece of information about an architect. There are certain assignments professors give that are so difficult that we end up getting every member of the class at the reference desk at some point. Is that a waste of our time? I know it’s somewhat different to be specifically asked by a professor to ask the question of a reference librarian, but we get that too sometimes with library scavenger hunts. If it’s someone from our service population, I see nothing wrong with it. We’re there to serve them.
    Later in the semester, I have students in my class asking a reference question through a widgetized chat reference service like MeeboMe, and then through a reference service that uses a commercial VR tool. I suggest that if at all possible, they use a service that is designed to serve them (that shouldn’t be a problem for most of them). I want them to explore the differences in getting reference questions answered through different technologies and reflect on how the technologies affect service. What other way could they get that experience and insight? And what is wrong with them doing that if the service is designed to help them? It’s not about rating the service of the person helping them, but about seeing what it’s like to ask a question in each medium and have that question answered.
    I’ve had several LIS students come to me with requests to interview me for assignments where they had to interview a practicing librarian. I’ve always said yes. I never thought “are the students supposed to go out and waste the time of professional librarians?” even though clearly the assignment would require a whole bunch of librarians to donate their time to help LIS students.
    I figure this post is probably more about the self-righteous lecture you were given by the student than anything else. However, if you can suggest to me a better assignment that would meet the same learning objectives for my students, I’m willing to change my assignment. Unfortunately, you will not be contributing to the improvement of reference education since my class is about social software.

  2. Meredith, I see your point, but will have to respectfully disagree. This student wasn’t coming to the service because of a difficult question. This student’s assignment was to ask questions just to see how people responded. If patrons more or less begin transactions by stating that they are library school students and want the librarian to search a catalog, then I know I’m being scammed. Good reference service does not involve playing along with this little game so that the fake patron can approve of librarians who jump through non-existent hoops just to show how helpful they are.
    The problem may have been that this patron wasn’t a good enough liar. It was obviously a fake question posed to an inappropriate service.
    “I want them to explore the differences in getting reference questions answered through different technologies and reflect on how the technologies affect service. What other way could they get that experience and insight? And what is wrong with them doing that if the service is designed to help them?”
    There’s a lot to comment about here. Obviously this patron should have gone to his own library chat service for a start. That university library also has a chat service. But besides the ethical issue of wasting librarians’ time with fake questions, there’s another problem with this participant-observer approach. The student (at least in this case) is NOT seeing how reference questions are answered in this medium. The student instead saw how fake reference questions from scamming library students are dealt with. That may be interesting in itself, but won’t teach many useful skills, as these questions make up a tiny percentage of questions asked. And the services aren’t designed to “help them” in the broadest way possible. The time and resources at my library are in no way intended to help library school students elsewhere learn how to be librarians.
    Part of the problem here was indeed the clumsy approach of the student. Asking an obviously fake question and then upbraiding me for not going along with the charade rankled. I would be happy to help students, submit to interviews, answer real questions, etc. But I won’t be exploited as a passive tool for the learning objectives of others if I can help it.

  3. My school does an assignment similar to this, though they tell us to go to a public library and ask for reader’s advisory help so we’re not harassing the university librarians.
    The assignment in itself wouldn’t be a problem I think, if we all genuinely wanted the advice.
    In your case, I agree that the approach the student was taking was a complete waste of time. If they normally wouldn’t be served at your library then why are they there? What’s worse is asking obviously contrived questions.
    Still, much of that could have been the fault of the professor giving the assignment. I know for mine we were told to go out of the city if we could because they do this assignment three times a year so the public librarians all know roughly when students will be coming.
    We are also told not to volunteer any information. We are only allowed to ask for book recommendations and then respond to questions if they are asked.
    A lot of schools seem to use this data to study reference service in the area, but they do tend to assume that the librarians giving the service can’t tell that you aren’t a genuine patron.
    A agree that it sucks.

  4. I am currently a SLIS student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I think the situation you faced was very unfortunate and yes, a waste of your time. When I took either of my reference classes, we had the assignment to do a job shadow. In that case, the hours were set up in advance with the library director. Both experiences were very well organized and I learned a great deal.
    There are ethical ways for us to learn the skills of a good reference librarian. The situation you faced is not one of them.

  5. Unobtrusive evaluation of reference services is a generally accepted methodology when investigating questions of the quality of reference service. Are we then to say that all of these useful studies completed by actual librarians and scholars in the field are wasting librarians’ time?
    To quote: “I would be happy to help students, submit to interviews, answer real questions, etc. But I won’t be exploited as a passive tool for the learning objectives of others if I can help it.”
    Except that you could not be expected to give an unbiased response to the reference question in these cases. When I was expected to complete the same assignment, it was not that I just asked question, but we had to give an entire qualitative analysis of the transaction from start to finish, and evaluate the level of service. And, we had to cite relevant other unobtrusive studies, such as the classic by Hernon and McClure (1986) which posited the whole “55 percent rule”: that only 55% of transactions are satisfying to the user. How are we to improve that statistic without precise measurement of it first?
    Are you arguing that all studies of this sort–that is, unobtrusive methods–are a waste of time? Then clearly we would not be able to get an accurate picture of reference service only from interviews and mock encounters.
    Or are you simply arguing that this particular investigator (who just happens to be a student) failed to uphold his end of the methodology and remain unobtrusive? In this case you are making a judgement on the person, not the methods.
    So, which is it? Is this an isolated incident, or are you condemning the practice entirely?
    I will say that, on a personal level, my unobtrusive reference examination was one of the most mind altering experiences in my time at school: to realize that librarians took such little care in answering questions as in the level of service I received. If there was even a handful of young professionals who set themselves the goal to give the highest level of public service possible based on their transaction, does that no make up from the one poor student you just happened to interact with?

  6. “Unobtrusive evaluation of reference services is a generally accepted methodology when investigating questions of the quality of reference service.”
    Then that is because lies and deception and using other people as means to the ends of the researchers are considered acceptable. There can be no argument that this involves lies and deception and using people as means to someone else’s ends. The only question is whether you can justify these actions to yourself.
    “Are we then to say that all of these useful studies completed by actual librarians and scholars in the field are wasting librarians’ time?”
    Yes, assuming that these are in fact useful studies, which is another question entirely.
    “Except that you could not be expected to give an unbiased response to the reference question in these cases.”
    One can observe reference transactions without becoming a participant in them.
    “Are you arguing that all studies of this sort–that is, unobtrusive methods–are a waste of time?”
    I’m not sure how I could be any clearer. Anyone lying to me and taking away time I could spend helping actual patrons or doing other work is wasting my time. Of course the researchers don’t think it’s a waste of their time, but then they’re the ones who believe they have the ends that justify the lies and deception in the first place.
    Observing reference is unobtrusive. Lies and deception may or may not be unobtrusive, but I don’t see how they can be justified as ethical in this situation. Obviously many researchers disagree with me, but that’s because they believe their ends justify using me as their means. I happen to believe lying to and deceiving people in order to use them as tools for your own purposes is unethical, and I have sketched out why in the following post.

  7. I had to do a similar assignment when I was in library school. I can’t remember now if it was my own sense of ethics or the actual terms of the assignment, but I was expected to ask about something I was genuinely interested in–i.e., I was to make a real reference request.
    Any future librarian who can’t think of a topic that interests them, in my view, would be showing a depressing lack of intellectual curiosity that does not bode well for their intended professional life. Hell, they can ask for help finding research about the dynamics of reference interviews, if all else fails. Or don’t they have other classes they’re doing research for?
    I don’t think the ethics of such situations are 100% clear…For example, I can support the idea of fake job applicants or fake potential homebuyers whose deception is meant to investigate possible discrimination. But the two questions that need to be answered are 1) are there alternative ways of reaching the same goal? and 2) is the end result a good that outweighs the bad of the deception? I can’t see how anyone could argue that there aren’t other ways of learning about what happens to people in reference interviews, and personally I don’t think the experience is that much of a good in and of itself.
    (And the commenter on your next post who brought up Institutional Review Boards: oh yes, definitely a real legal concern, to say nothing of ethics).

  8. “I don’t think the ethics of such situations are 100% clear…For example, I can support the idea of fake job applicants or fake potential homebuyers whose deception is meant to investigate possible discrimination. But the two questions that need to be answered are 1) are there alternative ways of reaching the same goal? and 2) is the end result a good that outweighs the bad of the deception?”
    I agree with this. If we were talking about an investigation into potentially unethical or illegal practices, that quite possibly justifies this sort of deception, since the assumption is usually that the persons being deceived are themselves ethically or legally problematic in some way. This is hardly the case here, though.
    Also, I checked on the IRB for that university. It seems as long as I wasn’t being asked for information about me, but only from me, the exercise doesn’t have to pass a review. I didn’t figure it did, since it’s not like we’re talking about manipulating children or anything. But I still think it’s difficult to justify ethically this behavior, and as far as I’m concerned the alleged value of these studies to the profession or the experience of one library school student hardly outweighs normal ethical precautions against lies and deception.
    And I should say, I was never assigned anything like this when I went to library school, and I did have a general reference class. Maybe we were too busy learning Dialog.

  9. On one hand, I see your point- this is an intrusive waste of your time. But then again, almost every industry and profession has ‘shoppers’ that evaluate performance. I don’t think its a matter of ethics violations by the experimenter. Is it possible that it might be your (partly justifiable) resentment about the situation?

  10. Typically, the secret shoppers who evaluate the performance are employed by the organization seeking the evaluation, and that evaluation is then considered and applied to the work in question. Such is not the case when professors send their library school students off to other universities to ask fake (and often obviously fake) questions to see how the librarian responds. That’s not “shopping” or evaluation, but intrusive observation which wastes the time of busy professionals. I find it interesting that such professors think it’s just fine to waste other people’s time with lying students, but would no doubt object if similar “secret shopper” methods were used in their classes, causing them to have to grade extra assignments and meet with extra students.

  11. I had a similar assignment in my MLIS program and, like Mark, was asked to find out something I really needed to know from two online information sources. I think I took a question I was having trouble with in a class for one, and how the online swimsuit shopping procedure really worked at Lands End for the other. I think asking something you really need to know makes the interaction more genuine and the interaction was valid.
    That being said, I can sympathize with Wayne to a certain extent. I work on a very large nationally and internationally based chat reference service. I get a lot of questions from MLIS students who seem to be going through the motions of an assignment they care nothing about. Either that or an MLIS assignment from another country that is obviously designed to “stump the librarian”. That does get old. I get 20 of them on the same night from a class, where the teacher by now has been informed that if they are going to send the class during a class break to have an online reference experience the class is going to have a substandard experience. And I get MLIS students who are given a print reference source assignment demanding that I find online fulltext versions on the subject because “I don’t have time to go to a library.”
    I try very hard to help the next generation of librarians and welcome being shadowed or even the secret shopper question that is a genuine search for information. But library students and library faculty may also need to think about how to get the most value out of this assignment. One caveat I would give both is to avoid Sunday night. The fact that Wayne’s interaction occurred on a Sunday night may say quite a bit about the student involved.

  12. Pingback: My Name is Ellen and I’m a Librarian | The Very Important Patron

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