A librarian’s nostalgia

Guess what I miss is the human interaction of digging out the data by finding the right person at the right place with the right info.

I don’t think of myself as a particularly nostalgic person. Sure, I play the music of the 1960s through the 1980s a lot. That’s not rooted in historical recollection, though; I’m OFTEN playing music of that period. I’m playing Beatles a couple times a year, at least.

Whereas how we did reference where I work as a business librarian has changed radically in the 20 years I’ve been there. What sent me down memory lane was the loss of power our building experienced last week. The librarians had these paper vertical files we hadn’t added to since 2005, since we now deal with digital documents. Finally, with little better to do, we started the process of dumping the paper documents, and it was the correct thing to do.

Once upon a time, we did not even have an Internet connection, not that there was much information available. E-mail was not something that everyone had.

In order to find out the answers to our questions, we did search on some half dozen databases we paid for. They were available on CD-ROMs which went into a Local Area Network so that all seven of us could access the data at the same time. This was WAY better than the predecessor model, where we would have to wait our turn to get to the single CD-ROM terminal. No, I DON’T miss THAT.

What triggered the nostalgia was the other information in the folders we were tossing. We would find the name of an association, or perhaps a governmental entity, and try to find out the answer to our clients’ questions. Often, we could get them to fax – remember the fax? – to us information about the industry. They might even mail us material. My sense, in terms of the associations, is that they believed, not incorrectly, that if they gave us a little bit of information that we shared, they would get more members of their organizations. So throwing out those documents we wheedled out of these people made me just a tad melancholy.

Thanks to the Wood Pallet Association, which gave us info on those functional, but hardly noted, items. Always appreciated the information we got from the various ratite associations. Don’t know what a ratite is? Neither did I, until 1994, when we got a wave of questions about starting ostrich, emu, and rhea farms.

Guess what I miss is the human interaction of digging out the data by finding the right person at the right place with the right info. What I have noticed, particularly with government, is that they put all the information on the website. Or they SAY the info’s there; often it’s not, or inaccessible, or incomprehensible even if I DO discover it. Now and then, I need to be on the phone, but most of that time is gone, and it’s just a little less joyful, a little less fun.

Of course, a lot of those associations might be less willing these days to part with their information. I noted one group in particular, what used to be the Christian Booksellers Association and now goes by CBA. Early on, it was a great source of the types of Christian books and other accessories (crosses, e.g.) sold at specialty bookstores. At some point, though, their accountant must have told them they’d be better of monetizing the information they had been giving away. I don’t really fault them, but it was too bad.

The only thing I actually saved from the vertical file dumping is a chapter of Introduction to Reference Work (1992) by my reference library professor, the late William Katz. It was the chapter on The Reference Interview, essentially how does the librarian ask the questions of the patron to elicit the right direction for the information search. Over two decades later, it seems still relevant, about mutual respect, and realizing that “the original question put to [librarians] by a user is rarely the real question.”

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

2 thoughts on “A librarian’s nostalgia”

  1. I guess some of that info could always be scanned. Then you could keep it indefinitely as “bytes” of information. 🙂 I remember being somewhat melancholy when there were no more card catalogs! Weird, right?

  2. You final paragraph sent me down a nostalgia path, when one of my jobs was to deal with the media. Sometimes they would have the whiff of a good story and come to me with their questions. I would answer them quite truthfully and they would go away disappointed leaving me shaking my head because they hadn’t asked the ‘right’ question.

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