Many of the words that mark milestones in the history of technology, such as calculator and word processor, originally corresponded to people. Calculating had at least two lives as a technology breakthrough–first as a process, and then as a automatic means for executing that process. Thanks to inventions like calculators and computers, human beings have moved up the value chain to become scientists and engineers who take low-level details for granted.
Similarly, the advances in information science and retrieval have dramatically changed the role of a reference librarian.
Hopefully some of you old enough to remember card catalogs, They were certainly functional if you knew the exact title or author you were looking for, assuming the title wasn’t too generic or author too prolific. Where card catalogs fell short was in supporting exploratory search. In many cases, your best bet was to quite literally explore the stacks and hope that locality within the Dewey Decimal system sufficed for to support your information seeking needs. Alternatively, you could follow citation paths–the dead-tree precursor of surfing a hypertext collection.
For exploratory tasks, library patrons would turn to reference librarians, who would clarify the patrons’ needs through a process called the reference interview. According to Wikipedia:
A reference interview is composed of two segments:
1. An initial segment in which the librarian encourages the user to fully discuss the request.
2. A final segment in which the librarian asks questions to relate the request to the materials available in the library
A reference interview is structured (ideally) according to the following series of steps. First the library user states a question or describes a problem. The librarian then clarifies the user’s information need, sometimes leading him or her back from a request for a specific resource (which may not be the best one for the problem at hand) to the actual information need as it manifests in the library user’s life. Following that, the librarian suggests information resources that address the user’s information need, explaining the nature and scope of information they contain and soliciting feedback. The reference interview closes when the librarian has provided the appropriate information or a referral to an outside resource where it can be found, and the user confirms that he or she has received the information needed.
Fast forward to the present day. Thanks to modern search engines, title and author search are no longer tedious processes. Moreover, search engines are somewhat forgiving of users, offering spelling correction and inexact query matching. Libraries are still catching up with advances in technology, but the evolution is clearly under way.
However, search engines have not obviated the need for a reference interview. Excepting the simple cases of known item search, the typical information seeker needs help translating an information need into one or more search queries. And that information need may change as the seeker learns from the process.
But it should come as no surprise that information seeking support systems need to be more than search engines. The ideal information seeking support system emulates a reference librarian, stepping users through a structured process of clarification. Indeed, this is exactly what my colleagues and I at Endeca are trying to do in our work with libraries and more broadly in pursuing a vision of human computer information retrieval.
What then becomes of librarians? Much as calculators and computers did not obviate the need for mathematicians, I don’t see technology obviating the need for information scientists. Library schools have already evolved into information schools, and I have no doubt that their graduates will help establish the next generation of information seeking technology that makes today’s search engines seem as quaint as card catalogs.