I know it’s been a long time since I rock-and-rolled. I had a two-month research leave this summer to work on the Enlightenment and libraries book, which meant that I did little but work on that for July and August, and am still catching up with regular work after the hiatus. Fortunately for me, the time was productive and I got a lot of writing done.
In August, I also attended the Reference Renaissance conference in Denver and participated in a couple of panels, including a debate with Joe Janes about “fake reference” questions over IM from library school students. It wasn’t earth-shattering, by any means, but it was a good discussion with a lot of audience participation, which was the goal. Typical for a debate, a lot of issues were raised, but I don’t think any minds were changed on the spot either way.
The most significant question arising from the discussion had nothing to do with fake reference, though. At one point, someone in the audience (I think it was an LIS professor) asked me if I thought every question mattered. I can’t remember the exact wording, but the basic idea was whether I believed every reference question, no matter the content or motivation, was worth answeringor had equal value.I think I surprised both her and Joe when I answered, No, I don’t. I wasn’t alone in that opinion, but it seemed like I was in the minority, perhaps even in the profession as a whole, so I’ve been working out what I think about the question.
I think the motivation behind saying all questions matter is the idea that the answer to any given reference question matters to the person who asks it, and that the job of the reference librarian is to take questions as they come. Thus, it shouldn’t matter to me whether the query comes from a library school student asking me a fake question or a student at my university with a research need. In other words, the questions matter because the people matter. But, as with the initial debate, it’s important to consider the context. All questions don’t matter to all librarians in all libraries all the time, because all people don’t matter to all librarians all the time. If you agree with that statement, then you agree that all questions don’t matter, at least in the sense I’m talking about here.
The initial debate was about library school students pretending to be genuine patrons and asking questions they really didn’t care about of librarians working at a private university, even when they had reference services at their own university. Their questions don’t matter for at least two different reasons. First of all, they aren’t genuine needs for information, and the job of the reference librarian is to fulfill information needs, not act as guinea pigs in LIS research. Only LIS professors think the role of the librarian is to serve as a guinea pig. Someone lying to me and asking me a fake question isn’t worth wasting my time to answer the question, especially when there are people with real information needs.
In this example, the questions also don’t matter because of the institutional context. I work at a private university, and our reference service is very specifically for my university’s affiliates, visiting faculty and students, and anyone with questions specifically about the university or the library’s collections. It is not our role to answer general questions from students at other universities, especially if that university has a reference service of its own. Also, in New Jersey, there is a statewide cooperative reference service called NJ Answers, in which we do not participate. This isn’t a public university, and unless they pay for access, we do not let members of the public use the library (and given the quality of the Princeton Public Library, I don’t see why many would want to use ours anyway).
Some of you might consider this policy restrictive, and believe that academic libraries should serve everyone. However, I would bet that even academic libraries which have an open-use policy (as the previous two academic libraries I worked in do), there are still categories of questions you don’t answer. The big one that springs to mind is homework help. I’ve never heard of an academic library providing homework help for K-12 students, and the academic librarians who don’t provide homework help implicitly believe that not all questions matter. In almost all academic libraries, there are going to be categories of questions or patrons who are less important than the libraries’ core constituency, and generally this will be the result of staffing and expertise. Because it’s not our mission to answer every reference question in the world, we don’t staff as if it is. If we didn’t have to make choices among scarce resources, then we might answer every reference question in the world.
I’m less experienced with public libraries, since my public library experience was in circulation, but based on my experience working reference in a public university with an open policy, I suspect there are distinctions in question-validity there as well. For example, most libraries have their crazy or obsessive patrons, the ones who are calling the library every day asking for celebrity birthdays so they can cast horoscopes, or the ones who come to the desk regularly and ask creepy questions about serial killers as long as the librarian is a woman. Sometimes it’s clear the patron just wants someone to talk to. I’ve seen all of these myself. I’d suggest these questions matter less than others because of the type of patron. Indeed, sometimes those questions are so crazy or creepy that if asked enough times the patrons will be banned from the library. Generally, we have less respect for obsessive questions coming from insane people. I don’t think we’re wrong to, either.
I would like to make one last distinction, that of the validity of the answer sought rather than the status of the patron. Can we not say that there is a hierarchy of knowledge, and that the validity of the question has some relation to the validity of the answer as knowledge? Maybe this could be the epistemological distinction between types of reference question, especially since the distinction relies somewhat on the status of the knowledge relevant to the knower.
Let’s take the example of astronomy versus astrology. One is a genuine body of knowledge, and the other is a genuine body of hokum and bunk. However, the validity of reference questions related to them could depend upon the questioner’s relation to the information need. Astrology itself is nonsense, but as an object of scholarly study, it has equal status to astronomy. Studying astrology historically or sociologically is as valid as studying astronomy scientifically. Thus, questions about celebrity birthdays motivated by a desire to cast horoscopes would have less validity than questions about astrological beliefs motivated by information needs relevant to an academically legitimate area of study. While I might indulge the obsessive astrologer if there were nothing else to do at the reference desk, the celebrity astrologer would have to wait indefinitely if there were pressing information needs of sane people doing real research.
So there’s at least four possible hierarchical distinctions among questions, depending on the genuineness of the information need, the institutional context of the library users, their relative sanity, and the relationship of the question to an actual body of knowledge. Even if every question matters to the person asking the question, the person asking the question doesn’t matter equally as a user in every library. Here I’m more or less brainstorming about possible responses than putting out firm beliefs, but if any of these distinctions hold, then for practical purposes not every question matters.