Inspired by conversations during the California Library Association conference in San Jose earlier this week and by online coursework through the University of North Texas, I’ve been completely immersed in discussions, articles, and examples of how onsite and online reference services are developing. It’s no surprise to discover that much of what works in one arena carries over effectively into the other, and the continuing popularity of Infopeople workshops on reference-related themes, as mentioned in the first of these two articles, tells me that there is still a very strong place for libraries in reference and information retrieval assistance.
One of the most consistently interesting sources on the topic is Thomas Mann, a reference librarian at the Library of Congress and author of The Oxford Guide to Library Research. His 41-page article (“The Peloponnesian War and the Future of Reference, Cataloging, and Scholarship in Research Libraries,” written in 2007) draws from the book to offer an insider’s view of how first-rate reference services can work in almost any setting. There is plenty here for us to absorb as we consider what we should be providing through learning opportunities targeted at library staff as well as at library members and guests.
Although the article is directed toward staff and students in an academic library setting, the basic procedures obviously remain useful within public library settings as well. He discusses how encyclopedia articles, through references at the end of those pieces, can help students and other information seekers locate standard works on a topic. He discusses the resources available through online public access catalog subject searching; mentions how the often overlooked printed volumes which form Library of Congress Subject Headings can lead to even more resources; and continues with demonstrations of how searching for journal articles not only provides great source materials but leads to additional finely targeted resources in the form of citations at the end of those articles. Again, there is nothing here that could not be used just as effectively through an online reference session if both parties have access to collections which support the reference work underway.
In two other articles (“Teaching Library of Congress Subject Headings,” published in 2000 in Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, and “Why LC Subject Headings Are More Important Than Ever,” published three years later in American Libraries), he focuses on a very specific part of the process and offers easy-to-learn tips and tricks which assist us in the reference and research process. His theme is readily identifiable: libraries offer wonderful resources for those in search of information, but library staff does not always do a great job at making library users aware of those resources.
Library of Congress Subject Headings, Mann maintains, is “one of the most valuable conceptual tools a researcher can have,” but “it must be taught, explained, and exemplified by librarians” (Mann, 2000, p. 117), and that is a lesson not to be ignored by any of us in our role of trainer-teacher-learner. “Teaching library research without LCSH is like teaching medicine without anatomy,” he adds (p. 118).
A noteworthy part of all Mann’s writing is his consistent pattern of avoiding either-or solutions. He does not overtly choose one method for assisting information seekers. Instead, he offers a variety of options in an attempt to provide the best assistance he is capable of offering. In the process of working alongside him through the material he has published, we have the opportunity to learn more by example. Through this process, we move a little closer to the level of achievement he has reached—to the benefit of those we serve.