Is there a wrong way to use a library?

John Hubbard
6 min readSep 7, 2021

“And these children that you spit on as they try to change their worlds are immune to your consultations”
—David Bowie

I have vague memories of getting points taken off on my math homework for not showing my work, and even worse, being marked down for coming up with the right answer, but doing so by not using the proper method. More recently, in the early days of the web, I recall struggling to write code up to spec that also rendered properly in browsers with a variety of quirks. Dare I use the <table> tag for non-tabular data, for example.

Tech people can be sticklers about obeying their chosen processes, at times to a fault. On the other hand, there really is a reason why you don’t want to deploy untested changes on a production server during a Friday afternoon. While there’s no single best way to do something, just as any number of theories can fit the facts, following inefficient and inadequate procedures doesn’t seem like a very smart thing to do.

You can start wandering the shelves of an academic library, as if it was a bookstore, in the hopes of serendipitously coming across books you’re either specifically seeking or would find interesting. In 2021, compared to using our discovery layer’s virtual browse function, not to mention its capabilities of handling searches by title, author, keyword, controlled vocabulary, and limit results with a variety of facets, unless you’re deliberately looking to waste time or just wanting to get your steps in for the day, walking around as such is a bad way to find stuff.

Should we therefore limit access to the stacks to only those patrons who have a known call number, as a way of deterring sub-optimal information retrieval strategies? If we’re going to police physical access points, what then about the student who mines a single Wikipedia article in order to obtain those five scholarly sources on their topic as required by the typical undergraduate research assignment?

In adherence to a fairly explicit open policy on the matter (“Information needs are fulfilled without regard to the format of materials used. Library staff may not assist you with requests for printed materials when their identical contents are available online.”), I have refused service a couple of times at the Reference Desk to students seeking to complete a scavenger hunt assignment that required them to use a print source to fulfill their contrived information needs. “Photocopy the table of contents page from a journal in current periodicals,” for instance, when we don’t even have a CP collection anymore. Older runs of serials we have reliable long-term online access to are likewise thrown in the dumpster.

There’s a bit of disagreement over the finer points of what constitutes harmful or inaccurate information and how if at all it should be presented, but library collections and services are otherwise developed to accommodate patrons with a variety of topical interests. Walt Crawford puts it nicely in a 2004 American Libraries column titled “The Dangers of Uniformity:”

“Does your library have the one best dictionary — and that’s all? A single encyclopedia? Shakespeare’s best play — and that’s your only drama? The King James Version of the Bible, to the exclusion of all other religious works and commentary? Do you only collect sound recordings of baroque music, Leonard Bernstein, hip-hop, comedy, or Russian nationalist composers? Or do you have just the single best recording in each genre?”

In contrast, I have to make a homepage that best serves the typical user out of a population base that includes students, faculty members, the general public, and last but not least, definitely in terms of how vocal they are about any changes made, library staff. We do not cater to patrons who prefer using the now-retired OPAC, at least, however, those who echo the refrain of, “that’s not how it used to work” are a rather vocal contingent. Designing the optimally intuitive interface which plays to their and everyone else’s expectations and desires, perhaps along with nudging them all a little more towards doing things the “proper” way, is a challenge.

Turning to my titular question, if you walk into my library and start breaking the law or violating our internal policies (which thankfully currently include not wearing a mask, as well as smoking, taking photographs without permission, not wearing shoes, making a ruckus in our designated contemplative spaces, etc.), you’ll be asked to leave. What I’m rather wondering about is supposing you start doing and expect assistance with research, but in a manner that’s just not a good way to do it, regardless of your background or the topic at hand, what should be the role of the librarian in guiding you along the path that you wish to follow?

The right way and the easy way aren’t always diametrically opposed. Ever since the web came along, we’ve been fighting against the quick and dirty path to obtaining information—often for the wrong reasons, particularly from an insular blindness to innovation—yet we are trying to get quality information into people’s hands, which is still at times a painstaking process. Commercial publishers, content providers, search engines, et al. are trying to get money into their shareholder’s hands, while anything else is incidental to that purpose.

So it’s no wonder that conflicts have arisen between how, say, YouTube delivers results based on what it calculates you are most likely to watch and thus maximize its advertising revenues, and how a trained librarian would rather almost always sit you down and conduct a thorough consultation on your information needs before directing you to search relatively esoteric library databases which are a gateway to what’s on average more reliable sources.

Making design decisions in a vacuum and taking a “my way or the highway” approach to determining how library services should be developed is one of the best strategies for assuring our eventual irrelevance. We have to at least meet people half way. In recent years, and by that I mean over the last decade or so, library search platforms have therefore borrowed from their commercial counterparts many design elements and features in an effort to close the aforementioned gap and thereby make libraries both easier to use as well as the right choice of search tool.

And so algorithmic bias is now a thing in library discovery layers. Whoops. This makes me think, as I’m fast becoming one myself, that maybe all those codgers who insisted we keep doing things the old-fashioned way were on to something. I’m not saying we need to bring back the card catalog, but minimally when someone wants to start searching on social media for Covid prevention tips, we should kinda step in and be allowed to say, “don’t do that.”

Hamlet’s idea that, “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” is a pretty slippery concept. Truths and falsehoods are not matters of opinion. In contrast, we each have different priorities about what we choose to do with our time or where we think society should be headed. Imagine how very dull life would be without this diversity.

Yet this makes defining the proper method for using a library, at least in terms of the best search processes to employ, a somewhat relativistic endeavor. What’s best at fulfilling my information needs might not be the case with yours, after all. However, this doesn’t entail that certain means to an end aren’t objectively better than others. Our mission as librarians should consequentially include promoting such improvements, by if nothing else gently discouraging inferior methods.

Further Reading

John Hubbard

Librarian at Washington University in St. Louis