Competitive Reference

By , June 1, 2010 3:14 pm

by Brenna Louzin 

Jeopardy holds a special place in my heart because it simultaneously reminds me of daily rounds at the reference desk and of my childhood. I can remember visiting with my Aunt Bessie while she did her housework: picture an “older woman”, a cigarette hanging from her lips, pink curlers, stockings rolled at the ankle and Jeopardy on the TV. Bessie frequently interrupted our conversations to call out her answers to the Jeopardy MC and game contestants, perhaps thinking that her answers would be included, that she would be the winner of the round.

It is many years later and unfortunately, my dear aunt has passed into the great “round” beyond, but I continue to focus on the concept of competition, intellectual competition. One of the most attractive facets of librarianship is the opportunity to demonstrate one’s intellectual mettle. After all, isn’t this one of the reasons so many of us chose librarianship in the first place? Perhaps some of us even feel a bit of excitement when presented with a difficult reference question, especially if the deadline for delivering your work product is ASAP! However, if you work in a library where more than one librarian provides reference services, have you considered how you compete with each other for projects? Think of all of the ways reference librarians in law firms, law schools, courts and corporations compete for reference work. Let me name a few: projects from the most senior attorney/judge/professor/dean; work assignments from the busiest trial team or practice group; requests from your biggest client(s); searches for teams with last-minute filings; billable work; beauty pageant/RFP groups with urgent business development research.

So, if you share the reference desk, wood or virtual, with other librarians in your organization, what happens when attorneys continually send requests to one or two individual librarians instead of posing the question to the Reference Department/Service as a whole? Doesn’t this defeat reference protocols, knowledge management, team building? What about sharing the reference load and the kudos?

As I contemplated writing this short post, I spent time researching the notion of competitive reference but did not find any research or even blogs on the topic. Is this a taboo subject? Is it shocking that reference librarians do not want to share their work and limelight?

Human beings, especially highly educated professionals like law librarians, want and need recognition for their talents, for what they bring to the organization and the bottom line. The question is how do we acknowledge reference star power and honor reference protocols, share knowledge and build knowledge bases, and present reference as a team or department instead of as service in silos?

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