Born to Search

“Always choose a lazy person to do a difficult job because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.”

After a slew of novice running injuries, I made the transition to more minimalist footwear. In my case, it certainly worked. While not a barefoot runner, I’m now relatively injury-free and enjoy running without special insoles or extra splints, braces, straps, and tape. As explained by Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run and adherent of the barefoot running movement, all of that extra padding in the bulkier lines of athletic shoes, which seemingly and at least initially protect against damage, impede our natural abilities to discover the proper running form, and in fact by supporting weaker muscles that need the most exercise, are actually to blame for many running injuries. (I should add that the manufacturer of those toe sock shoes has settled a lawsuit for overstating their benefits. I sure don’t run barefoot, especially on concrete in the Wisconsin winter.)

You can find examples of well-intentioned efforts backfiring and causing the opposite effect almost everywhere: the vicious circle of subsidies and handouts are a common political example; always putting out wildfires leads to a catastrophic amount of underbrush accumulating on the forest floor; and my favorite is probably how the eradication of cats in the Middle Ages, demonized by the church and thought to be Satan’s instrument in spreading disease, may have actually given rats freer rein to prosper and aid in spreading the plague. I’ve also seen it first-hand in my daughter’s efforts to learn how to ride a bicycle, when training wheels were clearly acting contrary to our efforts to improve her balance. After removing the training wheels, she readily became capable of riding without them. Parents who are fans of cloth diapers likely have similar stories.

In our role of assisting research, we need to take care not to become an unnecessary or even harmful crutch ourselves. Say someone asks us at the Reference Desk if we have a particular book, and the librarian diligently looks up the call number and hands it to the patron. This ensures our future livelihood, yes, because the next time that person has a similar need, they now have the learned helplessness to ask again for guidance rather than having figured out how to do it themselves. Any time we make it more efficient for us to do other people’s work for them, the blame lies solely with us for failing to educate users and create more autonomous researchers.

There’s nothing wrong with pursuing economy of effort. It’s human nature. Yet I remember reading about the psychology behind the principle of least effort in library school, mainly that it was a concept often presented as something worthy of derision. You see this today with the bemoaning about students who solely do “quick and dirty” searching and “just take the first five hits.” Many librarians interpret this to mean we therefore need to provide instruction for sifting through multiple pages of results in order to excavate quality sources. Google’s approach is to instead make the first five results more relevant. So why don’t we likewise make things more intuitively-designed and effectively bypass the need for as much library instruction? I’d bet it’s for the same reason that professional truckers, unsurprisingly, are opposed to self-driving trucks.

These are contentious subjects, primarily because allowing or even forcing people to figure stuff out on their own seems contrary to not only our mission but our survival as a profession. Of course there are still ways in which we should provide customer service. In an age of less mediated searching and a decreased need for traditional library reference and instruction in general, however, the prominence of librarians in the research process needs to be objectively analyzed, perhaps even not by those who still provide such assistance.

Very few librarians, I’m sure, consciously malign easier-to-use research tools because their new methods of use make asking a librarian for help less necessary — at least on the level of other contrivances built by a range of industries, from diamonds to light bulbs to textbooks. But all of this expressed concern for meticulously investigated defects in the replacements of traditional catalogs and the like to me comes across as reasoning as contorted as the newfound focus which oil companies have all of the sudden for the negative environmental effects … of wind energy. We need to watch for hidden biases and be aware of the real possibility that we’re simply not giving people enough credit or even the opportunity to adapt and learn. Humans are lazy, students included. We have put men on the moon, though, and come up with quite a few engineering marvels since. Our species is curious enough to have searched for many truths over the years.

Maybe we should keep that more in mind when considering if roving reference makes us come across as something similar to an annoying sales clerk, or publishing ultimately unhelpful online tutorial content which becomes as user hostile as that Microsoft Clippy assistant. Adding a blinking, spinning, flaming logo to say “Feeling Stuck? Chat Now with a Librarian!” on top of a newer search engine platform about which could largely be said “It just works” makes me think of Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park warning, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Further Reading

Check out my other posts for related commentary.