21 August 2013

Book Review: The Great Dissent

Thomas Healy, The Great Dissent.  NY: Metropolitan, 2013.

Legislative history--the process of determining what a law was intended to mean--is generally very dull stuff: reading memos, committee reports, and testimony transcripts is only fun for the first few hours.  Healy, though, teaches law (at Seton Hall University), so he both knows how to do that sort of research, and how to make the work engaging.

Which is fortunate, because his subject is one of our most important laws: the first amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees our rights of expression, religion, and peaceable assembly.  While this law has been on the books since 1791, it was only in 1919 that we began to understand it as actually limiting the government's ability to prosecute people for what they say.  That we can now disagree openly about government policy or protest against its actions is directly due to a change in the way Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, interpreted the words.

This book, unfortunately, comes too late.  By recounting one judge's evolution, occurring during the high communist paranoia after World War I, Healy shows the importance of this debate--and the importance of standing against governmental tyranny, something sorely lacking in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when fear of terrorism and the resulting Patriot Act chilled discourse; something we still struggle with as the NSA vacuums us every scrap of electronic data; something we traded for a false feeling of security.  Holmes' courage--to change his mind, to stand against the majority, and to support freedom over fear--should stand as an inspiration for us all, and Healy presents it as a readable political thriller.  This should be required reading in high school civics classes.

01 August 2013

Willingness to Return

Originally published in the ALLUNY Newsletter 38.2, August 2013

Spring means performance reviews at my firm, and reviews make me think about how we demonstrate our value as librarians.  My earliest columns looked at reference and usage statistics as a means of tracking our services, but these numbers seem to only address what we do, not how well we do.

That is a question only our users—clients, guests, patrons, and pests—can answer, and each might well give a different response.  None of them see the three hours’ digging it takes to find their answers—or the thirty seconds needed to navigate the correct database—but each has come to us with a problem, and each will leave with an impression of our skill—whether or not she leaves with the desired answer.  In fact, chances are good she won’t have the desired answer: some studies suggest that reference librarians ‘succeed’ only about half the time.  That feels like a lot of failure, even when the client understands that answers may not exist (if we’re lucky enough to have an understanding client).

How can we find success amid all the wrong answers?  Joan Durrance, one of my professors in library school, suggested a metric called ‘willingness to return’.  This is as simple as it sounds: is a client, upon completion of a reference interaction (‘successful’ or not), willing to come back to the same librarian with another request?

This question goes to the heart of our profession.  We act as information Sherpas, helping our clients navigate an otherwise unmanageable environment en route to a goal.  The desired path may be blocked; all routes to the summit might even be closed.  Our task is not to carry the client to the summit, but to show the path (and do most of the heavy lifting).  We cannot control the trip’s ultimate success, but we make our client’s success more likely, and our own success is a reflection of our client’s success—as we tell every new hire, we’re here to make you look good.  If the client sees our effort as a valuable contribution, she will likely ask us for help again—whether or not we were able to find what she wanted last time.  The return question, then, is our true measure of success, even if it doesn’t show up well on a performance review.

Further reading:

JC Durrance & KE Fisher, Determining how libraries and librarians help.  Library Trends, 2003