In Computer Age, Librarians Must Maintain The Human Touch

Release Date: July 19, 1994 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- While the electronic revolution has meant wonders to reference librarians, it has been bewildering to many undergraduate students. It is now more important than ever for librarians to maintain personal contact with their patrons, says Gemma DeVinney, Ph.D., an academic reference librarian in the Lockwood Library at the University at Buffalo.

Bookstores, which truly encourage patrons to browse and linger, are maintaining the appeal once reserved to the reference stacks, DeVinney writes in the Journal of Academic Librarianship. "We should try to maintain that atmosphere as well, and not just focus on computers," she says. Librarians must provide the same personal assistance patrons receive from their favorite bookstores.

DeVinney says that it has never been easier for her, in her 20 years as a librarian, to hone into research on a specific topic, but students have never been more overwhelmed and confused, with many more choices for information retrieval available since the card catalogue days.

Libraries are rapidly moving toward the concept of "virtual libraries," replacing electronic products for human contact. The idea of substituting machines for librarians alarms her. It "doesn't really help the average student," DeVinney says. "Computers have their place, but the human touch is still important."

She says writer Robert Gerloff's description of reference librarians in a "blind rush toward a futuristic Emerald City," in a recent issue of the Utne Reader, struck a chord with her.

Librarians must recognize that what works for professional scholars may not be the best for student neophytes. Student anxieties related to information retrieval stem from their lack of conceptual grounding in the information infrastructure, DeVinney notes, adding that most systems require learning different search commands.

Librarians should be available to approach and work with students on OPAC and CD ROM terminals, she says.

And although electronic mail is effective for answering simple questions, the best method for information dissemination is still face-to-face contact, where librarians can read "non-verbal clues," she says. The telephone also may be a more effective reference tool than e-mail. "On the phone, we can quickly come up with the best course of action," she adds.

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