Knowledge and Reference Effectiveness

A couple of people were very quick to criticize this statement in my last post: “But it seems to me that for advanced research a librarian who knows nothing about the topic itself won’t be very useful.” The offending implication is that reference librarians who aren’t subject specialists or who don’t have advanced degrees can’t do good reference work, which isn’t the case, with the related and quite good point that a big part of reference work is negotiating with the patron, not just having a lot of knowledge about a subject.

Points happily granted.

So I want to revise my question. It might help to make a few distinctions. First, by area, I mean one of the general large divisions in academia: humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, etc. These could also perhaps be called cultures, following C.P. Snow. These areas, or cultures, have different methods, objects of study, assumptions, foundations, and shared knowledge.

By field, I mean a subdivision within that area: English, Sociology, Physics, etc. I also want to distinguish between queries which have a definite answer–no matter how complex–and more substantial help providing guidance on a research project, work that is necessarily more open-ended. For the sake of argument, let’s call these reference help and research help, even though in practice we know they’re mingled and we’re fine just calling them reference. I make this distinction because there is an obvious difference between answering a question and providing guidance in a research project. I was and am talking about research help.

My revised question is: When providing advanced research help, do you think reference librarians in general (or you in particular) are equally effective in both 1) areas or fields they know well, and 2) areas and fields about which they know nothing?

A follow-up question could be, how do you know, given that often you don’t know what you don’t know? (For example, I know that I know almost nothing about engineering, but I know there is such a field and roughly what it does. However, there must be gobs of subjects that I’m not even aware of, and thus I don’t even know which of them I don’t know about.) This question could probably be studied empirically with various reference assessment tools, but I’ll leave that job for the tenure-track librarians.

For my own part, I think I’m less effective the further I get from my area of greatest knowledge–the humanities. In fact, there are areas, such as engineering, about which I know so little that I wouldn’t know if I were providing effective research help at all. My knowledge about the field is so limited that I don’t see how I could possibly feel confident. The assumptions, approaches, methods, etc. are so foreign to my education that I have no subjective way of measuring my effectiveness. In fact, the further one gets from the humanities, the less it even makes sense to talk about research help. Natural scientists don’t do much of their research in the library, but in the lab. For the humanist, the library is the lab.

This changes as the areas move closer to the humanities. There are fields within the social sciences I’ve studied from interest or enjoyment, especially political science and sociology. The field of law is similar for me. In those fields, I’ve learned enough to have some idea of what I don’t know. I understand my strengths and weaknesses, and thus I have some way of knowing how effective my research help can be. I know when it’s time to refer to someone with greater knowledge. Political theory and qualitative sociology? I’ll give it a whirl and feel comfortable. Economic data? Referral time.

For the humanities, there is hardly a field about which I don’t have at least some minimal knowledge. For this area, I will include literature, history, philosophy, and religion. I know a lot about these fields because I’ve been reading widely–if not always deeply–for over twenty years. And to be clear, I’m not talking about credentials and degrees, but just knowledge. One of my commenters rightly pointed out that a PhD and no communication skills a bad reference librarian makes. I agree. I don’t have a PhD. I just read a lot of books and am intensely curious about the subjects. In the humanities, I know very well my strengths and weaknesses. I have a very good idea about what I don’t know.

This plays out when I work with students. The farther the research project is from my main area of knowledge, the less comfortable I am that my work is effective. I’m not even sure how I’d know. And what’s more, the work I can do in other areas takes longer for me and for the patron, and I still can’t guarantee my effectiveness, because I don’t know enough about the fields to know what I’m missing.

Thus, my own answer to the question is, No. I don’t think reference librarians are equally effective for research help in areas they know well and areas about which they know nothing. Also, outside of an independent assessment, I don’t see how anyone could possibly know if they were, given what they don’t know they don’t know.

And if the answer generally is, No, then that lends support to my previous speculations that both background knowledge and swotting up for a research consultation make one’s research help more effective. The more I know about a topic, about its context, its background, the better I am able to offer guidance, discuss alternative research strategies, and recommend sources. Perhaps I am the exception, though. Perhaps most other librarians believe they are equally effective in all areas. I tend to think that if one is really equally effective in every area, then it really means one is ineffective in every area, but I could be wrong.

6 thoughts on “Knowledge and Reference Effectiveness

  1. I’m horrible at business reference. However, I’m much better at medical reference, even though I am nearly equally ignorant about both subjects. With medical reference, I know and understand the databases well; e.g., I can explain how to use thesauri to help find the best search terms. With one subject, I am not only ignorant of the subject (financial ratios, anyone?) but that afternoon our reference class spent in a business library in the 1980s didn’t help me become proficient at using the resources. I think that you *can* do an adequate or superior job with reference in an area where you lack personal knowledge, but only if you thoroughly know the resources.

  2. I’m a cataloger by day, but I spend a few hours each week at the reference desk. My own background is in the humanities and I have no problem with anything in the areas of music, art, literature, religion, etc… But I have more trouble with the medical sciences and finance. I usually find myself spending 20-30 minutes AFTER the reference interview discovering ways in which I could have given better service and learning more about the field, hoping that the next time around, I’ll be better prepared.
    Were I in a situation where I had scheduled research consultations, I would certainly feel the need to do some prep work ahead of time.

  3. I think that commenters who disagree with your post may be confusing advanced research with more introductory research or the “how” in searching a database, etc.. When it comes to pointing students in the direction of general sources to use early on in their research process, I don’t have much trouble even when I am unfamiliar with the entire area in which their topic exists. As they have refined their topics a bit, I find that I have to ask them a bit more about it… who, what, where, when… (or, depending on the topic, gasp! look it up in Wikipedia) to get some idea of useful search terms, or related or broader topics. I have to admit that this is kind of embarrassing, but hey, even though I am highly-educated, I am not well-versed in all areas – virtually no one is. But at that point, once I know a bit more, I can still do an effective search and point them in the right direction. When it comes to even more advanced research (and by “advanced” I mean both higher “grade” level, so to speak, and further along in the research process) I will often have to refer questions to someone who has more expertise in the area. There often comes a point where in-depth knowledge of a topic is needed in order to understand the questions and connections involved, or, as you suggest, to even realize that there are things you don’t know. When it comes to advanced research, it’s not just about knowing the resources, unless by “knowing the resources” you mean truly knowing and understanding all of the contents of all of the books and other resources, and how those contents relate to the contents of other resources, etc.. Research is often not just searching a database – it’s often using materials, the content of which is “hidden” until you actually examine it closely. (That is, full-text searching does not exist for the vast majority of materials in a library.)

  4. I could have sworn that I included a bit more content in my comment above. I must have edited it out of one part and not put it back in as I had planned to. I’ve reread what was posted and I’m not sure if the ending is clear.
    I wrote – “When it comes to advanced research, it’s not just about knowing the resources, unless by “knowing the resources” you mean truly knowing and understanding all of the contents of all of the books and other resources, and how those contents relate to the contents of other resources, etc..”
    I had intended to say that once you get to the point I have just described – knowing that a book is considered the authoritative work on an issue, or that a book covers X but not Y, and another book is a great book that looks at Y, and its relation to Z, you can usually be considered to be at least somewhat well-versed in a given area, even if you’re not an expert. So no, you don’t need a degree in a subject to be well-versed in it – you CAN do effective reference work if you “know the resources.” BUT simply knowing how to craft an effective search string or knowing the advanced features of a particular database does not mean that you know the resources. It’s handy, maybe necessary, but not sufficient for providing effective reference service to advanced researchers. (And sorry to say LC subject headings and contents notes are often woefully inadequate when it comes to describing the contents of a work – that’s why even the most carefully crafted catalog search will not turn up all the useful sources… that’s what I meant about full-text searching not being available for most things in a library.)
    So… once you reach a certain point, both a knowledge of the topic AND a knowledge of the collection is very important. (And no, I have not worked in my library for 30 years or even 5 years… but I recognize, with each passing month, how much better I get at reference as I read more and more and learn the contents of our particular collection.)

  5. There a level of indepth reference that I’m capable of doing in subject areas that I have been passionate about. Years ago I read “Reading and the Reference Librarian” and it helped me understand that reading, sometimes randomly and sometimes in depth through a topic is the best thing I can do to help my students. So it is a good day when I get a chance to recommend specific book titles, articles or strategies because it is a subject I know at least something about. I love sharing books that I read. I try to focus my reading to continue to grow in certain areas.
    It’s also a plug for getting Classroom instructors to collaborate with instruction librarians, the more I know about what you are doing in your class, the better I can help your students… but that’s a different subject entirely.

  6. With so much information available, it’s impossible to read everything about everything, let alone to know everyhting about every book.
    Just the sheer lingo of some fields make it pratically impossible to really get into some field, as you would need to study all the terminology -and understand ir- before you really know what’s in the book. I know I have started reading books on specialised subjects, only to find myself Google-ing every word out of 3 and not really progressing in the book, since I had to spend more time on understanding the terminology as Wikipedia esplained it, then on reading the book.
    So no, I don’t think when providing advanced research help, reference librarians in general are equally effective in areas or fields they know well and areas and fields about which they know nothing. The more advanced the subject and the more specialised the area is, the wider the gap will be.

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