Voices From The Past Reflecting On The Future (Number 4): Dorothy Sinclair, Reference & Automation

February 20, 2014, 6:40 pm

I’m interested in the impact of automation on libraries. It makes sense to look at the topic from the collections lens, but I’m really fascinated by the service perspective. In the 1960’s we have Licklider talking about an Intergalactic Network of Computers and an electronic commons open to all. He gives The Mother of All Demos showing video conferencing, hypertext, word processing, dynamic file linking, and a collaborative real-time editor – essentially launching a computer revolution.

What were library leaders thinking while all of this emerged? Dorothy Sinclair, who served the president of the Public Library Association and was the president of the Reference Services Division during the late 60′s published this interesting paper: The Next Ten Years of Reference Service. Here are a few quotes:

“Contributors to this paper did not altogether agree in picturing the user of the reference service of the future. All agreed we should have more users of information, but some saw the users of the future as better informed, requiring less of the teaching function of the reference librarian. Others, agreeing that there would be more sophisticated users at one level, believed that new and less sophisticated users could also be anticipated as we reach new segments of the population with information service. With these new groups, the teaching and interpreting functions would continue to be of major importance.”

And then there is this:

This made me think of Forster’s The Machine Stops.

“The prophecies of some contributors provided an entirely different picture of the user of future information service. He was sitting at home, pressing buttons on a console connected with national and international information centers, receiving his information on television screens or machines which provided print-outs. Communications satellites were at his service. The console he used had some of the characteristics of a highly sophisticated teaching machine, thus taking care of the interrogation function. It also provided assistance to the storers of information which enabled them to adjust their input to users’ requirements. In this picture of the future, there seems to be no place for the reference librarian, as we know him today.”

Dorothy goes beyond pessimistic or optimistic views; she digs deeper into the idea of how librarians will need to evolve:

“So often librarians confuse ends and means, become devoted to particular techniques because they have devised them or developed skill in using them, unconsciously glorifying them into ends and convincing themselves that their continuance and the continuance of library service itself are identical.”

“As a division, Reference Service Division has in the past ten years devoted relatively less of its attention to users than to tools and techniques. In the next ten years, we shall probably need to devote more of our efforts to users at all levels in order to provide what they need and to make sure they obtain it in usable form.”

Dorothy comes across as very sincere and passionate about reference. Take her message to heart —  tools and techniques are not our only value-add. There is always more that we can do to invest in relationship-building and addressing the needs of users.

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