Sunday, June 28, 2009

Information overload: the death of reference has been greatly exaggerated

The debate over how we read, perpetuated largely by media insiders, is starting to seem like little more than a distraction from the real problem: We have access to more information than ever, yet we do not know what to do with it. We are desperately information-illiterate.

Danielle Maestretti "Shelf Life: Information Overload", Utne Reader July-August 2009
This is very worthwhile reading, unambiguously concluding: literacy should be a high school requirement, which seems like a no-brainer—10 or 20 years ago, even. For now, it seems that burden is being shouldered by school librarians, which would be a more promising scenario if they weren’t often among the first heads on districts’ budgetary chopping blocks.

For the out-of-school, significant information literacy can be gleaned from public librarians, who are info-literate by trade. Yes, even in this digital age—especially in this digital age—librarians are often the best place to start. They’re at reference desks and Radical Reference (, on instant messenger and telephone, behind brightly colored “Ask a Librarian!” buttons on library websites. They’ll help you cut through the clutter and send you back into the world with a few literacy skills you didn’t even know you needed.

This is where I disagree with Toni Garvey's statement that “Reference is not our niche.” Google has won this competition! This is true as far as it goes, but is easily oversimplified. I use Google and Wikipedia, too. But I still use our reference service. Google has drastically changed the reference niche, but hasn't eliminated it any more than television eliminated movies.

This is why our reference librarians are busier than ever. This why experimenting with new information delivery channels, such as chat and text, are an essential part of library service. As more people need and use our public access computers, and as more people try to cope with information overload at home and at work, we're there to help.

We wish that more people knew what we could do -- but on the other hand, we're already pretty busy.

No comments: