Sacred Texts in English Translation LibGuide

Several months ago I was looking for a guide to reliable English translations of the sacred texts to major world religions. I didn’t find one online that I liked, so I made one and turned it into a LibGuide page: Sacred Texts in English Translation. The subpages for that page list English translations of texts relevant to Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Islam along with links and catalog records for my library’s collection. It’s based on an article I published this fall: “Sacred Books in English Translation.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 52:1 (Fall 2012), 18-25. The article has a bit more information about the various texts (such as the difference between Theraveda and Mahayana Buddhism) that I don’t include in the guide, but that information can be found in many places.

If any of you want to copy, use, or adapt the page for your own LibGuides or other library guides, feel free to. Also, if you have any suggestions or criticisms, please email me or leave a comment.

A Model of a Research Consultation

In my last post, I discussed research consultations, which seems to be one common interaction in academic libraries that is rarely addressed in library school, at least based on the standard reference textbooks. I examined the two standard texts I’m familiar with–Bopp & Smith’s Reference and Information Services and Katz’s Introduction to Reference Work–and neither addresses the research consultation as such, though Bopp & Smith mention that there are these things called research consultations. The assumption seems to be that the needs of the research consultation are covered under basic reference: conduct a reference interview, assess the information need, address it, etc. Instead, I tend to think of a research consultation as something in between a standard reference transaction and an instruction session.

Though some research consultations focus on specific information needs, most of the ones I have start from a general research topic, usually with the student wanting scholarly books and articles on that topic. Often enough, there’s a gap between the way the student thinks about the topic and the scholarly discussion about it, if indeed there’s any scholarly discussion at all. In that case, the consultation often includes discussion about how to approach a topic based on the research found. Rarely do I encounter a student who has a topic that perfectly conforms to both the research and the controlled vocabulary of an established index. So, considering a student who goes into a consultation with only a topic or even a vague research question, what should that student leave with? That question isn’t addressed in the reference textbooks, and it wasn’t addressed at all in any of the reference courses I took in library school.

In the ideal research consultation, I think students should emerge with a small number of relevant sources and a plan for how to proceed with their research after the consultation. Thus, it is partly about finding an “answer” to a question like “can you help me find sources on X?” However, it’s also a time to provide detailed instruction on how to find more sources like those, and sometimes even on how those sources might be useful depending upon the essay topic.

I’ve given a lot more thought to this since I started teaching in a library school. I wanted to teach reference skills appropriate to academic librarianship. In the arts & humanities librarianship course I’ve been teaching at the University of Illinois, I assume that ready reference in the humanities is dead and focus on research consultations. Dead might be too final a word, but the way reference has traditionally been taught–e.g., sets of ready reference questions and possible reference sources–is much less relevant to the academic library than once it was. For the research consultations, I give fairly well developed research questions based upon actual questions I or others have gotten from students and have my own students write a response in 2 pages or less as if it were an email exchange. There are obviously limitations to the assignment, such as the impossibility of conducting a reference interview, but it’s as close to a real world interaction as I could come up with, and the sort of thing I do on occasion when a face to face meeting won’t work.

In their response, my students are supposed to provide an example of each of the following (if relevant to the topic):

  • Primary sources (archives/ historical documents/ works of literature/ philosophical works, etc.)
  • Secondary sources (including “seed documents”—recent, relevant, scholarly books & articles)
  • Tertiary sources (encyclopedias, bibliographies, etc.)
  • Citations that seem worth chasing
  • Important scholars in the field (if they can be identified)
  • Databases and indexes to search
  • Useful keywords and subject headings/descriptors

Keep in mind this sort of consultation is geared towards the humanities, though I could imagine variations for students who needed help in other fields. Also, not everything on the list is appropriate for every consultation. Nevertheless, students who get to this point should be able to proceed on their own, which should be the ultimate goal of research instruction.

Because I’m curious about what other people do and because I’m always looking for ways to improve the course, I’ll end with questions. Does this seem like an appropriate model for a research consultation? Is it too ambitious? Or does it leave the student with too few documents in hand? Is there something you would do differently in an assignment that could make it mirror an actual consultation more?

Neutrality and Research Help

I’ve been thinking a lot about this blog post AL Direct linked to on Dealing with Politicized Reference Questions from the relatively new blog Letters to a Young Librarian. (I hadn’t heard of the blog before, but after a quick skim of the back posts added it to my reader.) The post proposes ways to handle questions where students are “looking for sources to support a position for which there is a lack of academic support.” The advice is practical, and I’m not discounting it. It’s not necessarily what I would do myself, but reference is an art, not a science. However, a couple of statements in the post have been nagging at me since I first read them, possibly because, as happens often enough, they sound like solid librarian orthodoxy and I completely disagree with them. Let’s take them in turn.

“As a librarian, however, I do not have the luxury of telling a patron that their topic isn’t going to work. I’m there to provide objective information access….”

That does indeed sound like the orthodox librarian policy. For “objective,” I substitute the perhaps more common term “neutral.” The librarian should be neutral in providing information. After all, according to Article II of the Library Bill of Rights, “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” Librarians aren’t supposed to take sides in a debate when helping readers find information, or refuse to help find information on topics they disagree with. I agree with this, but I don’t think it means I can’t tell students their topic won’t work. I’ve told numerous students over the years their topics won’t work. If there’s no evidence supporting their thesis (or in my case usually no scholarly debate about their odd topic at all) that I can find after the most rigorous searching, then the thesis won’t work. Research essays should insert themselves into a scholarly debate at some level, and if there isn’t a scholarly debate, then there’s no essay. If there’s no scholarly debate as well as no reasoning or evidence behind a thesis, students don’t have to abandon the topic completely, but they will have to adjust their thesis so they can defend it in a scholarly research essay that demands at least a modicum of reasoning and evidence. I don’t mind telling them that because I don’t think it’s my job with students to provide objective access to information as such. It’s my job to teach them how to do academic research.

In practical terms, I might turn this into a series of question: What prompted you to want to write on this topicn? Did you read something supporting it? Hear about it somewhere? What evidence have you gathered so far? What reasons do you have for holding this position? All those questions get at the core of the problem in a constructive way. I want to know how they got to the point they’re at now, where they’re coming to the librarian asking for a few sources to support a position they arrived at without any support at all, because I want to know where they’ve gone wrong in the research process and begin there. If students are asking for sources to support an argument they want to make but don’t already have some evidence for, something has gone wrong with the research process. It’s broken. That’s not the way research works, and it’s part of my job to make that clear to students.

Which leads me to the second statement: “this post focuses on how to guide students to scholarly resources that support their argument.”

Again, this seems like something librarians should be willing to do, but it’s not. It is never my job to guide students to scholarly resources that support their argument. Not helping guide students to scholarly sources to support their arguments doesn’t mean I abandon my neutrality or my duty to aid their research. It’s just that my job is to educate them as well as guide them. The post was about politicized questions, and thus the desired objectivity was implied to be about the political position of the student’s claim. But one can be neutral about politics without being neutral about process. It doesn’t matter what claim the student wants to make an argument for–whether it’s about global warming or the symbolic meaning of tea cozies in contemporary Lithuanian poetry–scholars don’t pick a claim and then go find sources to support it. They research a general topic and go where the argument leads them, or at least they should. Hence some of my earlier questions. What led you to want to make that particular claim? If you pulled a thesis out of nowhere, then you need to back up and read more about the topic before you can possibly write a research essay.

Research (in the humanities at least, which usually includes the type of first-year writing course research essay I think is being addressed) is a recursive process. Find a general topic of interest. Read some general sources. Formulate a research question or hypothesis based on that reading. Read some more specific sources to answer the question or test the hypothesis. Narrow your topic to a thesis based on your interpretation of the available sources, then argue that thesis using whatever evidence you have to defend it and critiquing evidence for the other side. Without doing the preliminary reading on a topic, students have no reason to assume the thesis they want to argue has any merit whatsoever. Furthermore, one can’t make a good argument, especially on a “politicized” topic, without understanding both one’s own position and the opposite position. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter whether we agree or disagree with a student’s thesis. The thesis itself is irrelevant. It’s about process, not substance.

Let’s consider a hypothetical topic, global warming. It could be anything, but I’ll stick with a politicized topic since I don’t know anything about tea cozy symbolism in Lithuanian poetry. Possible research questions might include: Is the earth really warming? If it is warming, is human action contributing to that warming? If the earth is warming, what will be the consequences? Will the consequences be dire? If the dire consequences predicted are based on models, how sound are the models?  If human action is contributing to that warming, to what extent? If the earth is warming, and if human action could slow or stop this warming, and if that would be a good thing, what are the economic costs now and in the future of that action? All of these are legitimate research questions to begin an essay with, and all leave plenty of room for various political interpretations. But a student in question might say to a librarian, “I want five scholarly sources for my research essay that prove global warming doesn’t exist.” (If they said they wanted five sources that proved global warming did exist, I wouldn’t address that directly, either.) Regardless of the initial approach, the response should be the same. “I can help you find numerous, recent, peer-reviewed scholarly sources on various aspects of your topic. You should then read them, evaluate their arguments, and position your own claims in relation to them.”

It doesn’t matter what the end result is, and over the years as a writing teacher and librarian I’ve guided students through the research of theses I found reprehensible. Nevertheless, it’s not important what students argue; it just matters how they argue it. It’s similar to the process of peer-review. Peer-reviewed scholarly sources can sometimes radically disagree on significant topics, but it only matters for our purposes that they meet a standard of argumentative or methodological rigor. The same should go for student research essays, and we shouldn’t feel bad about saying so when appropriate.

Does Every Question Matter?

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

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.

How Much Preparation?

One of the assignments for the arts & humanities reference course I’m teaching is a research consultation. The assignment is an email question from a student seeking research help while preparing to write a research essay on a given topic in an upper-level undergraduate course. The questions are very closely modeled on actual questions, and in a form that I’ve received multiple times over the years from students. Often enough these would end up as in-person consultations, but for the purpose of the course the students write responses offering research help. 

I can say that so far my students’ work has been for the most part outstanding. There are two rounds of consultations (Literature OR History; Art OR Music). The students write a response to the question and a secondary explanatory response to me, and I’ve found the explanations more useful and insightful for my purposes than the consultations themselves. The literature question involved finding a particular controversial essay from the 1970s a professor had mentioned, with no title or author given, only the context of the question. Everyone who chose the literature question found the controversial essay, and everyone found it by a different route, which was interesting to see.

Today I was struck by a question in one of the explanations sections. The student knew almost nothing about the topic in question and had to spend an hour or so learning more about the topic before the search process could even begin. The question to me was how long do "real" reference librarians spend educating themselves about a topic before they start answering a question. 

My answer was that it depends. I have often spent an hour or more doing preliminary research on a topic for a student consultation if it’s on a subject I know little or nothing about. Given the diverse nature of the topics I see from students, it’s fairly common that I have to do at least some. In fact, this is sometimes the most enjoyable part of my work. Is this common? I’m assuming that reference librarians who deal with advanced research projects in the humanities would often spend time doing this, but I could be wrong.

All depends on the context, I suppose. There are topics I see frequently enough that I’ve done the necessary work before. Often there are topics about which I already know a good deal about just from broad reading over many years. Occasionally there are topics so close to my own intellectual interests that I could probably provide a good working bibliography from memory. This preparation is generally unnecessary with lower-level research projects. For short first-year writing seminar essays, I can usually pick up enough from context to guide the student effectively.

But it seems to me that for advanced research a librarian who knows nothing about the topic itself won’t be very useful. Formulating search terms and approaches to a topic requires knowledge of more than just abstract library research skills. Like good collection development, it requires at least some knowledge of the subject, even if the knowledge is gleaned quickly just before the consultation. Not only does it make it easier to find relevant sources for the topic, but it also allows the librarian to communicate with the student in an intelligent way about the topic. This is related to the arguments in Reading and the Reference Librarian (that I discussed here), which argues that wide and deep reading on a number of relevant subjects makes one a more effective reference librarian. I’m not sure all reference librarians would agree with that, especially the ones that don’t read very much, but I’ve seen the results in my own work. In addition to that reading, I would definitely add the question-driven background research that at least some librarians routinely do before consultations. I think it’s good practice, but I wonder how common it is.

Still They Persist

Last spring I wrote about the ethics of fake reference in a series of posts. About a year ago, a student in a library school course at an unnamed library school at a large state university in New Jersey popped up during my Sunday night chat reference shift lying to me and asking me fake questions.

Skip to one year later, almost to the day. I’m still doing Sunday night chat reference shifts. Reference students at the large unnamed library school in New Jersey are still lying to me. Apparently they didn’t read my posts from last year, so if you know the professor handing out this particular assignment – go lie to reference librarians at private universities and ask them fake questions – please pass this post on to them.

My first question is, what exactly do you think the students are supposed to learn from this? I really can’t figure out what it is. It can’t be how librarians at my institution (a private university, by the way) respond to genuine questions by our clientele or to honest researchers, because that’s not what happens when these students encounter me. Are they supposed to find out what happens when duplicitous library school students lie to experienced reference librarians and try to deceive them? If so, then keep up the good work, because that’s what the students learn when they get me on the line.

A friend of mine currently teaching reference says I don’t like to be "secretly shopped." That’s not the problem. If the shopping was secret, it might be okay. The problem is, I can tell from the very moment the first question is asked what is going on. (I’d detail how I can tell, but that would just give the deceivers more ammunition. Experienced reference librarians can probably figure it out.) From the very first question tonight, I knew. It was obviously a fake question, and, frankly, a particularly stupid and improbable one. I answered politely, then referred the query to the patron’s own librarians. I was trying to be kind. Once upon a time I was a library school student myself, though a considerably more honest one.

The lies continued. The person claimed to be a student at a particular college. Uh huh. Fine. I refrained from saying, "you really have no scruples whatsoever, do you?" Instead I merely asked, "you’re in a library school reference course, aren’t you?" Finally, the person admitted the truth, but then had the further gall to say, "I just wanted to know what librarians would recommend for X topic." Uh huh. Sure. If that’s all you’d wanted to know, you could have asked.

I’m not sure why I get so miffed about this, but I do. It seems to me a violation of professional ethics. Do the teachers of reference not see it this way? Am I not a professional with a job to do? Is my time not valuable? Do I deserve to be lied to by duplicitous students? As many around the country can attest, if I’m contacted directly, I’m more than happy to help students. Why lie to me?

I’m not sure what I can do but write about it here. Someday perhaps I’ll try to teach reference myself, to show how it can be done without asking students to lie to busy librarians.

Until then, I offer some advice to duplicitous library school students at the unnamed library school. Please don’t pester the chat service at my library. Your own library has a chat service. Bother those librarians. They are very good, and I’m sure they will resent your lies as well, but then again they work for your institution. If you absolutely have to chat up my institution. try telling the truth. It will get you further. You might not realize this, but the librarians where I work are pretty smart and very experienced. We do this for a living, and we can tell when you’re lying to us.

On Verifying the Nonexistence of Nonabsurd Reference Objects

Like most reference librarians, I don’t like it when I can’t answer a question or find a source someone needs. I try not to be one of those librarians who keeps plying the patron with more and more sources until they start backing away from me with a look of terror, but I don’t like people to go away empty-handed.

Last week I had two occurrences of empty-handedness, and both led to the same feeling of frustration I always get when this happens. One student was looking for recent articles responding to a particular chapter of a 30-year-old philosophy book. This is still a standard work by a very prominent legal philosopher, but I could find no evidence of anyone ever responding to this particular chapter, much less anything recent. Another patron wanted some biographical information about an obscure German artist. (Actually, the query began, “I want an obituary for X person.”) The artist was so obscure there’s hardly a mention on the entire web, and no available biographical information in English or German, as far as I can tell.

As far as I can tell. Ay, there’s the rub. For ultimately, how far can we tell? At what point can we say with certainty that something doesn’t exist, at least something that isn’t inherently contradictory. If someone wanted help to find a squared circle, I might point them to Thomas Hobbes’ claims to have squared the circle, but I certainly couldn’t find a squared circle or any other absurd thing. But these reference objects aren’t inherently absurd. There very well could be biographical information about this obscure German artist, or a recent article responding to a particular chapter of a 30-year-old philosophy book. These things aren’t self-contradictory. They’re not impossible, just improbable. And so the reference transaction ends, as it must, with my saying that while I can’t confirm that such a reference object does not exist, I have exhausted the known resources without being able to find the thing.

I think what we reference librarians need is a reference source that lists all of the questions for which we know there is no answer. Then I could go to this source, look up the obscure German artist, and say, “See, it says here that no biographical information exists on this person, and this is the authoritative reference source on the nonexistence of nonabsurd reference objects. Do you have any other questions?” A source like this would let me rest easier after a fruitless search. It could be, though, that this reference source already exists, and I just can’t find it. If only I could know for sure.

Alternatives to Deception

A couple of posts ago I took a stance that was apparently controversial. That’s not like me. I usually save my controversial opinions for lunchtime conversation after making sure I’m not being recorded surreptitiously. After I criticized lies and deception in fake reference, someone very rightly asked if I meant just the particular type of deception that particular library school student tried to use on me, which had nothing to do with assessment as such, or did I instead mean to question the value of all so-called unobtrusive reference assessment that makes use of such deception. Just to clarify, I am definitely questioning the value of such assessment, and indeed do not believe that the end (producing a research article that might or might not be useful) justifies the means (lying to and deceiving people). I believe such practices are ethically suspect, as should be clear by now.

The commenter, Steven Chabot, rightly notes that “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?”

Such deception is indeed a generally accepted methodology, but I think it should not be. Fraud is fraud, and I don’t see how the means justifies the end here. If the end is vitally important and can be achieved by no other means, then just maybe, but such is not the case here. Such lies and deception are ethically unsound and are unnecessary to boot.

And yes, they are a waste of librarians’ time, which is why it doesn’t surprise me that every one of these unobtrusive studies that I’ve read has been conducted by non-librarians. Perhaps we should have librarians posing as fake students in library school courses evaluating the teaching effectiveness and feedback on assignments. Then we can all have a discussion on the ethics and effectiveness of deception.

He apparently had a similar assignment in library school, and “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?”

Here we get into tricky ground, indeed. I have to disagree on so many levels. Perhaps this is heresy among librarians, but I will boldly state first, that I don’t think the so-called “55% Rule” tells us much about the state of reference in any given library; second, that I don’t think such studies in general provide a “precise measurement” of anything useful; and third, that there are ways to assess reference without resorting to lies and deception.

What follows is primarily an excerpt from an annotated bibliography I wrote on reference assessment a couple of years ago. If you want to read the whole thing, you can find it here:

“Best of the Literature: Reference Assessment.” Public Services Quarterly. 2: 2/3 (July 2006), 215-220.

Part of my opinion of the 55% Rule, which I never completely trusted, was formed by the following article:

Hubbertz, Andrew. “The Design and Interpretation of Unobtrusive Evaluations.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 44, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 327-35.

Hubbertz provides an excellent, sustained critique of the normal methods of unobtrusive evaluation of reference services, arguing that for the evaluations to be useful and meaningful the subjects need to be given uniform tests, that the results need to be interpreted to provide a comparison rather than an overall assessment of reference service quality, and that the one area in which such observations may be useful is to evaluate the ways libraries organize their collections and deliver services. His analysis of various published studies of unobtrusive evaluations shows them to be inconsistent and “for practical purposes, nearly worthless.” Not administering uniform tests “may be a principal culprit for these perplexing and disappointing results.” He criticizes in particular the domination of the “55 percent rule,” arguing clearly that such evaluations are designed specifically to generate middle range results, and in fact test reference questions that almost no one or almost everyone answers are excluded from the evaluations. Thus, the evaluations are designed to generate something like a 55% success rate. Hubbertz amusingly shows how we can design the tests to improve the rate of reference success. While middle range results may be useful for comparing the services of different libraries or different ways of providing reference service in the same library, they are useless for determining the overall quality of reference service. He concludes that in the future unobtrusive evaluations may have some use, but they “must be properly implemented, with a uniform test and an adequate sample and [their] application must be limited to the assessment of how best to manage library resources.”

Another article questioning the use of deceptive (err, unobtrusive) evaluation is the following article:

Jensen, Bruce. “The Case for Non-Intrusive Research: A Virtual Reference Librarian’s Perspective.” The Reference Librarian 85 (2004): 139-49.

Jensen argues against applying typical methods of unobtrusive reference evaluation to virtual reference services, because of both practical and ethical concerns. Practically, having pseudo-patrons ask fake questions online does not take advantage of the wealth of transcripts of virtual reference questions available to researchers. Ethically, such evaluation is “an irresponsible misuse of the time of librarians and research assistants” and can degrade the service, though, he notes, “there will always be researchers convinced that their own work somehow trumps the work and lives of the people under study.” This argument both further develops and contrasts with that of Hubbertz, developing the ethical critique of unobtrusive evaluation more and extending the criticism to the evaluation of virtual reference, but not considering the problems with typical unobtrusive evaluation of traditional reference services. He concludes with a call for more research on virtual reference that takes advantage of the wealth of transcripts available, shares the research findings with the objects of study, and does not attempt to deceive virtual reference librarians with pseudo-patrons and false questions.

Curiously, Jensen deems acceptable such methods to evaluate traditional reference services as “the price that must be paid for an intimate view of the reference desk from the user’s side.” Only here do I disagree with Jensen, since I don’t believe deception and time-wasting are worth the price to be paid.

Arnold and Kaske give us an example of such a study based on transcripts:

Arnold, Julie, and Neal Kaske. “Evaluating the Quality of a Chat Service.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 5, no. 2 (2005): 177-193.

Arnold and Kaske establish a clear criterion by which to evaluate their chat reference service: providing correct answers. Using the categories of reference questions supplied by William Katz in his Introduction to Reference Work, the authors analyze 419 questions in 351 transcripts of chat reference transactions at the University of Maryland and provide a model for assessing the value of that service. After coding and classifying the questions, they studied what types of users (students, faculty, other campus persons, outsiders, etc.) asked which types of questions (directional, ready reference, specific search, research, policy and procedural, and holdings/do you own?) and how often those users got a correct answer. Policy and procedural questions topped the list of almost all user groups and represented 41.25% of the total, followed by “specific search (19.66 percent), holdings/do you own (15.59 percent), ready reference (14.15 percent), directional (6.24 percent), and research (3.12 percent).” “Students (41.3 percent), outsiders (25.1 percent), [and] other UM individuals (22.0 percent)” asked the bulk of the questions, and the librarians staffing the service answered the questions correctly 91.72% of the time. Different user groups tended to ask different types of questions. Since other studies of reference transactions have claimed that reference questions are correctly answered about 55% of the time, the authors conclude that future research should study this apparent discrepancy. However, in light of Hubbertz’s study the discrepancy may be less puzzling.

Thus, it would seem that I’m certainly not the only one who believes that deception is ethically tolerable for assessing chat reference. However, there’s still the reference desk. Is deception ethically tolerable there? Certainly not. But is it even necessary?

For an alternative to the deceptive model of reference desk assessment, see the following article:

Moysa, Susan. “Evaluation of Customer Service Behaviour at the Reference Desk in an Academic Library.” Feliciter 50, no. 2 (2004): 60-63.

Moysa describes in a concise and readable article the process used by her library to evaluate their librarians’ customer service behaviors. Basing its criteria upon the ALA Reference and User Services Association’s “Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Services Professionals” (1996) [ed. note: rev. in 2004, referenced above], the reference department used a combination of self-assessment and observation. Moysa considers both the ethical problems of unobtrusive evaluation and the practical problem that normal observation affects behavior. She concludes that the literature indicates that observation over a sustained time eliminates many of the negative practical effects and notes that having the reference staff participate in the process of creating this evaluation model from the beginning mitigates most of the ethical objections. Moysa has described a method of evaluation and assessment that deliberately avoids lies and deception, and for the reference desk at that, so it would seem that we both disagree with Jensen that deception is the price we pay for reference assessment.

Thus, there are other ways to assess reference. Then the question becomes, how are we to improve the quality of reference. Rather than (or at least in addition to) these sorts of ethically sound assessment tools, we should spend much more time thinking about the education, training, and culture of reference, and especially of the proper character required of a good reference librarian. If we have reference librarians with the proper ethos, the character appropriate to their profession–educated, intellectually curious, driven by a desire and equipped with a capacity to solve information problems, practiced in the appropriate ways to respond to various audiences, adaptable to changing circumstances–and a culture that supports them, then we won’t need such reference assessment, because good reference will take care of itself.

The Ethics of Fake Reference

My last post was written in a fit of pique, and understandably someone took issue with part of how I expressed my frustration. Meredith Farkas commented that “To call the student an ‘obvious liar whose intent is to waste my time’ is really awful.” That’s quite possibly true and I should have been more gentle. However, there are other things that are awful as well. Lying is awful. Deception is awful. Using people as unknowing participants in human experimentation is awful. Treating people merely as means to your own ends is awful. Betraying the implied agreement behind a reference query is awful. I opined that sending out students to ask fake reference questions is an ethically dubious practice. Today I would like to elaborate by briefly exploring the issue. I’ll approach the practice from several ethical perspectives and you can decide whether you agree with me.

First, let’s consider the Kantian perspective. You may be familiar with Kant’s categorical imperative, which says that one should act in such a way that one can will the principle behind one’s action to be universal law. Basically, don’t do it unless you think everyone should do it, or in a briefer version of the Golden Rule, do as you would be done by. This principle would, I think, preclude lying, deception, and using people as unknowing participants in some psychological reference experiment. It would also, I think, preclude wasting the time of professional librarians on fake reference questions, just to see how they responded. Would these same students and their professors want to be lied to and deceived in order to further someone else’s ends?

The other part of Kant’s ethics says you should treat people as ends in themselves, and not just as means to your ends. What is the fake reference interaction doing but using the reference librarian as an unknowing means to someone else’s ends? Most people resent being used as merely a means to someone else’s end. It might seem that reference librarians in general are always merely means to someone else’s end, but that’s not the case. If I willingly agree to participate in a certain relationship as a reference librarian, this is different than if I am deceived or manipulated. I’m here to help people answer actual reference questions. My action wills that reference librarians should answer such questions. My action does not, however, will that I be used as an unwilling guinea pig in someone else’s reference experiment. There is an implied contract in a reference transaction. You have a real information need and I help you with it. When that contract is broken by deception, then my part is ended.

Next, let’s consider the utilitarian approach. The utilitarian dictum is that an action (or a rule behind an action, depending on whether one is an act- or a rule-utilitarian) is good if it leads to the greatest happiness for the greatest number. This approach makes it less clear for this situation. Is the greatest happiness for the greatest number achieved by fake reference patrons lying to reference librarians? According to the felicific calculus, does the happiness of the fake reference patrons outweigh the resentment and unhappiness of the manipulated reference librarians?

Or we can expand this more broadly to a consequentialist approach. Instead of just considering happiness as the end, let’s consider the consequences of the action. What good consequences come from the lying and deception? Who benefits by a fake reference transaction? Does the student faking the transaction learn anything? And does this make up for the deception somehow? In my case the participant-observer approach was flawed because I spotted it. Asking an obviously fake question and then upbraiding me for not going along with the charade rankled. Thus, the fake patron didn’t learn how reference questions were answered, but instead learned how I deal with fake patrons trying to manipulate and deceive me. As the fake patron noted, things went quite well at first, but by the end the person was disappointed. We both were.

We should also consider the virtue ethics approach, derived from Aristotelian ethics. In this approach, ethics isn’t so much about rule following or calculating happiness, but about forming certain types of character in people. I think this approach makes more sense in terms of the ethical upbringing of children and the formation of character. We don’t people to have to stop and argue with themselves about whether they should lie or betray others. We want people who tell the truth and don’t betray others as a matter of habit. We want them to have a certain good character. We want people who as a matter of habit don’t deceive others just to obtain their own ends. We want reference librarians who willingly do all they can to answer legitimate reference questions or help with research problems, and we don’t want reference students who go out and lie to librarians. Is this the sort of character we want to develop in future reference librarians? You can probably see where I’m going with this, so I’ll move on.

I’d like to mention one other perspective. In his later work, Martin Heidegger discussed what he called technological thinking. Technological thinking involves considering everything that exists as a tool standing in reserve (bestand) to be used by human beings. This would include not only obvious tools such as hammers, but also the natural world as a whole. It doesn’t matter what happens to chickens or forests, for example, because they are just standing in reserve to be used by us. The ultimate problem with technological thinking is that eventually humans themselves come to be considered as tools or objects standing in reserve to be used by others at their will (consider the phrase “human resources”). This is related to Kant’s objections to considering other people as means to your ends rather than as ends in themselves. The technological thinker views everything and everyone as a tool standing in reserve to be used when appropriate. Thus, the hapless reference librarian becomes merely a tool or a means for the fake reference patron to achieve some other end.

Thus, we have a handful of ethical approaches, and it seems to me they all lead to the conclusion that lies and deception are bad things. Even if under some consequentialist approach one could justify the lies and deception and manipulation by some higher end, what is gained here? Do the fake patrons (or their professors who hand out these assignments) think that some higher end justifies lying to librarians and wasting their time? Do they think that reference librarians are so clueless that we can’t spot the faker? Do they think spotting the faker has no effect on the reference transaction? Do they think that other people are to be used as unwitting means to their own ends? That reference librarians aren’t there to help people with reference queries and research needs, but are just there as a little experimental tools for library school students to play with? Apparently, they do.

If students want to learn how I do reference, I’ll be happy to help (under the rule that it’s a good thing for librarians to willingly help library school students as I was willingly helped by librarians when I was a student). Shadow me. Interview me. Analyze my chat transcripts. See how I act when people approach me at the desk. Watch me from afar or a-close all you want. Read the reference behavioral guidelines that I helped write. But don’t lie to me and try to deceive me.

If however, after all this, you or your professor decide that your ends somehow justify using reference librarians as your tools and you still choose to lie and try to deceive them because they’re not worthy of respect as busy professionals or even as human beings and ends in themselves, then you should be a much better liar than this person was. Practice that lying and deception until you have it down to a fine art. It won’t make you much of a reference librarian or even a decent human being, but at least the librarian won’t be left feeling manipulated and betrayed and you might achieve whatever end you think justifies your means.