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Reference librarians as superheroes: navigators in a precarious online world

At best, searching for reliable online information is precarious. At worst, it’s dangerous. A new breed of information superhero — the reference librarian — is a trained navigator of this new world.

A 2018 Digital Charlotte study revealed that the ability of Mecklenburg County residents to find useful online information dropped nearly in half between 2012 and 2018. The ability to find accurate online information dropped by 23 percent.

Reference librarians have been evolving in a new online information landscape since widespread adoption of Google as a search tool in the early 2000s. But they’ve been around since the 1880s. The American Library Association says that with their information-seeking skills and knowledge of reference sources, they provide personalized assistance for finding information and verifying citations. They teach patrons how to find accurate information from online and print resources. They fulfill requests for assistance in person at the library, over the phone, or through online chat rooms. In smaller libraries, all librarians support reference requests. In larger or university libraries, reference specialists are sometimes available.

Beyond helping people do research through reference books, reference librarians like Rachel Kubie of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library offer assistance for technology, source analysis, and information consulting.

“Originally, we helped people do research,” said Kubie, “but that has changed over the years. A lot of what we do right now is helping people find things online and helping people learn how to use online resources, because much of our collections are now shifting to online collections.”

While technology resources are now widely adopted throughout the population, education about them is often insufficient. Reference librarians do a lot to assist those who come in to use it. “We teach people how to use online services and even very simple things for people who don’t have internet access at home,” Kubie said. “A lot of it is very basic information technology assistance and then some of it is more involved research assistance.

“The things that we recognized as accurate sources of information and the way that information was gathered and funded — all those things are changing, whether it’s universities, newspapers, or libraries. It changes the nature of information gathering and information seeking.

“When we talk about access to resources, it has a lot to do with the community that you’re already in. When you want to expand outside that, you need a guide.

“The idea of being an information consultant is a great one. Often people will come into the library when they don’t know where else to go.”