Yesterday’s Washington Post featured an article called “At Library of Congress, changes are afoot in technology as well as physical space.” In terms of physical space, they’re condensing reading rooms and muddling the distinction between reference and research. Last year, in one of my grad school classes, someone brought up the notion that in five years, reference librarians may no longer exist. Instead, since the general public believes that everything important is online, they don’t tend to physically go to libraries or consult reference specialists. Online exhibits are taking the place of the reading room experience, and Google is the new reference librarian.
For a national institution like the Library of Congress, their mission instead is to get the information out there to people who can’t visit in person. Great! But the public expects instant results, and that is not feasible in every situation. During my time volunteering at NARA, I spoke with visitors on a regular basis who thought they could just type their name into one of our research computers and generate a list of all the governmental documents in which they appear. When I told them about the process for research–getting a reader card, meeting with a reference specialist, requesting boxes of records to be pulled at special times of the day–they were floored. They were only here in D.C. for the day, darn it, and they figured they would just pop into the National Archives to do some genealogical research!
So obviously, as information professionals, it is our job to get the information to the people. But it is also our job to educate the public just how the processes work, and if they want the best assistance, they need to consult with reference specialists. Institutions with archives full of juicy primary sources may not have the money to upgrade their websites, let alone digitize their collections. It is best to talk to a person, not a computer conglomerate search engine, to see just what is there. Instant results are not always possible. But good results? That takes some time and expertise.