Predatory Reference – Librarians “Slam the Boards”

CIRI Blog

Published: April 10, 2014 by Dr. Lili Luo

A few weeks ago, the Special Libraries Association (SLA) held a webinar where Elisabeth Leonard, Market Research Analyst at SAGE, presented findings from a survey of libraries about the current state of reference. This specific presentation focused on reference budgets and perceptions of reference services by various user groups – most of the library budgets for reference are shrinking and patrons have low level of awareness of library reference resources and services. This made me think about a group of librarians I studied last year – they are involved in a grassroots activity called “Slam the Boards”, and they visit social Q&A sites on the 10th of each month and answer as many questions as possible. Social Q&A sites, also called “question-answer sites” and “answer boards”, are becoming increasingly popular as an online source for people’s information needs. Users of these sites post questions that are then typically answered by fellow users. Examples of social Q&A sites include Yahoo! Answers, Quaro, Answerbag and WikiAnswers. The word “Boards” in “Slam the Boards” refer to answer boards, which is another name of Social Q&A sites. According to the founder of “Slam the Boards”, Bill Pardue, a public librarian in Illinois, the name originated from a sports term for going after a rebound in basketball or the puck in hockey, suggesting rushing into an environment and do something en masse. Through this activity, librarians hope to represent librarianship at a new venue, encounter users beyond the library, provide well-sourced, dependable answers to people’s questions, and make people aware that librarians and libraries can be valuable source not just for books, videos and other materials, but also for mediated answers to questions and referral to appropriate sources and organizations.

Last year, I conducted in-depth interviews with librarians from “Slam the Boards”, and learned that their participation in this activity was motivated by one major reason – they believe in the importance of marketing and promoting libraries, particularly in the age of shrinking budgets, and consider “Slam the Boards” an innovative outreach opportunity. I also inquired about their time commitment, choices of social Q&A sites and questions, perceived difference between social Q&A sites and library reference service, and benefits of the experience. Findings of my study were quite insightful, and I’ve been invited to publish the study in Internet Reference Services Quarterly.

At this day and age, as libraries are facing wide-spread budget cuts and doubtful voices of the long-term future of libraries, it becomes ever more important to engage in innovation and create positive and effective connections with the user community. I think, this “predatory” and “invasive” way of library outreach and advocacy via “Slam the Boards”, represents a concept of making librarians visible in places where they are not expected. Social Q&A sites happen to be the most obvious examples. There are a lot of other places where people ask for help in their information seeking process, such as Twitter/Facebook, or specialized online communities. Librarians’ presence in such places will make it clear that librarians stand to help people fulfill their information needs in any way they can. Hopefully we will see more and more of such innovative ideas and practices from our reference librarians.

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