Should the library be a window, or a black box?

In a #blogjune post from earlier this week, Sharon asked the following questions in relation to the way libraries provide information to clients:

Should we be like the farmers and start educating people about the process of getting the information to them?  What does it involve?  How do we go about it?  What skills are needed?  What hurdles do we jump to get the information?  Or do they really need/want to know?

This is one of the biggest differences between academic and health libraries that I’ve found in my short time as a health librarian. In my role as a Research Librarian in a university library, I did show clients how I found information for them, in order for them to learn how to do it themselves. This was a natural part of working in an educational institution. However, the situation is quite different in the health library where I currently work. We provide information as a service – the client (usually a busy, time-poor clinician) submits their literature search request, we search the relevant resources and find some results, and then we send those results to the client. The same applies to requests for journal articles.

This is what I was referring to when I included “black box” in the title of this post. The processes that we go through in order to find the information that our clients are looking for is hidden from the clients. By contrast, in the academic setting I was providing a “window” into the process so that the clients could understand it better. I’m not saying that none of our clients want to learn how to find information – I have sat with a couple of them and showed them how to construct a good search strategy. However, these have tended to be the exception rather than the rule. There are times when health librarians do need to provide clients with an insight into how the information was found, e.g. when they’re assisting a team who are preparing a systematic review. On the whole though, the information retrieval process remains a mystery to our clients. Again, I’m not saying this as a bad thing, it’s just the way that things are and it seems to work for everyone concerned.

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About Andrew

I'm a health librarian in Sydney, Australia, who also happens to be a geocacher.

One Response to Should the library be a window, or a black box?

  1. It’s a similar situation in a parliamentary library. Many of the requests we got were urgent and needed an answer as quickly as possible (eg. so that an MP could include a quotation or fact in their speech in 15 minutes’ time!). So the library staff would find and deliver the information to clients on request. A very different experience from academic libraries, but I enjoyed both. I think a black box is okay, as long as librarians are also willing to share their processes with clients and not make it a deliberate mystery. It’s important that clients can trust the information that you hand them.

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