Reference Librarians and Indexers

Abstract:  Drawing on a revolutionary new technology of the time – the hyperlink – this article proposed a solution for the labor-intensiveness and repetitiveness of work at the library reference desk. It was proposal for an online Q&A reference database created by indexers working with reference librarians. It is a proposal that is still relevant today!

NKH July 2, 2011

VOL. 4/NO 5 SEP / OCT 1996 ISSN 1064-1211

Putting Our Heads Together: Reference Librarians and Indexers


Creation of hypertext links in a virtual library reference collection catalog on the Internet is a way for information seekers to be better served than by merely indexing what is on the Internet now.

ODDLY ENOUGH, IT IS possible to earn an MLS (Master of Library Science) while learning very little about the structure of indexes. Most reference librarians use indexes, but few get intensive training on index construction. Instead, reference librarians learn classification schemes for books and types of reference tomes, e.g., directories, dictionaries, guides, etc. Reference librarians believe their job is to help patrons access information. In reality, reference librarians are working hard to prevent many patrons from finding information.

Unlike indexers, librarians seem to assume that people have unlimited time to pursue information. Indexers, on the other hand, know that indexes, especially back-of-the-book indexes, exist to speed the search for information. Indexers live to facilitate information retrieval. Librarians, on the other hand, seem more interested in collecting more and more information, but make no effort to speed retrieval of the information they have collected. People still have to drive to the library, find parking, go to a reference desk and then be pointed towards a certain section of the shelves or handed a book to look through. Working people rarely have this kind of time to spend. Walk through most urban public libraries and you will see students, children, retired people, homeless and unemployed people. Working people, on the other hand, subscribe to magazines and browse bookstores or the Internet instead of libraries for their information.

Librarians avoid looking at the issue of who uses libraries by focusing instead on the information to be found in libraries. As long as there is all types of information available on all topics, librarians feel they have done their jobs. In this way, librarians (and to some extent indexers) act as though information is a discrete commodity which can be contained in a library building. Information is reified and made into a thing, usually a thing found in books.

Actually information is not a thing at all; it is a byproduct of communication. Talking to people (the “invisible college”) is often a better approach to finding information than looking in books. Because the Internet allows us to talk in print via computers, we suddenly have an explosion of information outside of libraries and books. And as indexers have been among the first to notice, we need better access to information on the Internet.

This will not happen until reference librarians and indexers begin using the Internet to collaborate with one another. Librarians need to accept that the Internet is breaking down geographic boundaries and that a library now can serve people anywhere in the world. As a result, librarians need to use the Internet collaboratively to index the information in reference books.

Indexers are also needed to join in this effort. One-service-fits-all Web crawlers are as inefficient as global classification systems like Dewey’s or the Library of Congress’ for finding specific items of interest. We need in-depth subject analysis of information on the Internet. Both librarians and indexers need to be employed on behalf of the communities to which they belong to facilitate access to information via the Internet.

The problem with the reference librarian, like the Lone Ranger, riding in alone to answer the questions of the few who manage the time to call or come to a library is that this creates an enormously expensive service, that, contrary to librarians’ desire to be democratic, is available to only a small part of the public. In addition, every time a librarian leaves the field, the bulk of the connections built up over years of experience in a librarian’s brain go with her/him. The answers to questions are continually being rediscovered by each librarian working alone. This is incredibly inefficient, and I have argued elsewhere that reference librarians need to stop researching questions that have already been answered by other librarians, and to start helping patrons who are browsing the Internet for information. I have suggested a method for doing 1 this which I call “reference annealing.” I will summarize that method here and tell how indexers are needed to implement it.

Theodor H. Nelson, the person who originated the term hypertext, defined hypertext as “nonsequential writing-text that branches and allows choices to the reader, [and is] best read on an interactive screen. As popularly conceived, this is a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways.”2 Many years ago, before I had heard of hypertext on computers, I came across a print version of hypertext. An Australian librarian had written a textbook that suggested various paths (i.e., page numbers) that the reader could take to get from one topic to others in the book that related to it. Indexers will realize that this was merely a form of see also cross-references em bedded into the text of a book instead of the index. It only takes a little imagination to realize that hypertext see-also links can be put into any kind of text online, and they have, with the result that all kinds of hypertext Web pages have bloomed on the Internet. Most Web pages, however, are limited by being creations of individual people or organizations. The Internet is hobbled by the little collective use made of it, and information retrieval is what suffers most.

In the 1980s Neil Larson, a Berkeley hypertext software designer, wrote in his newsletter, MaxThink, about the concept of “information annealing.” Larson took the concept of annealing from metallurgy and applied it to social interaction. Larson defined “information annealing” as the use of a form of computer-assisted indexing such as hypertext links by people who wish to combine and fuse together their thoughts about an issue. Carrying this one step further, I coined the term “reference annealing” as a term that covers librarians and indexers using computers to collectively combine their wisdom about where to find information in the sources they work with.

As libraries create Web pages and put their online catalogs onto the Internet, those catalogs can become a place for collecting and remembering collective wisdom. Reference annealing would require collaboration by librarians, indexers and computer programmers to create a virtual online reference catalog using hypertext software. This effort would need to be supported by a combination of public and corporate funding. There are ample funds available for developing shared cataloging databases on the Internet. Unfortunately most library directors are wholly focused on putting the catalogs of their entire book collections online. While this is certainly beneficial to local communities, the Internet is a global network. Patrons in Iowa do not usually care what is on the shelves of a public library in California.

Patrons in Iowa do, however, often need the same information as patrons of libraries in California. And for this reason, they could use help from librarians in either Iowa or California or anywhere else for that matter. To get this help quickly, librarians must be able to share a common site on the Internet. This site could be a “virtual reference collection,” an ideal reference collection constructed by combining catalog records of titles from many libraries’ real reference collections. This virtual reference collection catalog would be a “place” on the Internet where reference librarians would go via their computer terminals to find what reference sources might answer their patrons’ questions. Communication with patrons could then take place via e-mail, phone or in person.

Hypertext links among catalog records would enable librarians (and anyone else who cared to browse) to move around the shelves of the virtual library in ways that subject descriptors cannot. For example, a directory of private schools would never be listed in a library catalog under “youth” or “teenagers” since it is not about that group of people. However, that group of people would probably want to use such a directory. Hypertext links could take a librarian among the records of a library’s directories that young people, in particular, might want to use.

Likewise, hypertext links could make it easier to help patrons who fall into more than one socio-cultural group. For example, the record of a particular alcohol/drug treatment directory might have links from the records of similar directories showing that it alone provides information on which treatment centers both serve women and have facilities for the disabled. Meeting the needs of people of diverse backgrounds is now one of the most difficult problems at the reference desk in every kind library.

Another question which constantly plagues reference librarians is the issue of what point of view a document takes. Hypertext links allow documents on a particular subject, e.g., capital punishment, abortion, etc. to be grouped by point of view, e.g. <supports> or <refutes>. The hypertext links will show that this is a reference librarian’s subjective opinion, not a cataloger’s authoritative “subject heading.”

Indexers too could be employed in making these kinds of hypertext links. Because indexers read the text of books much more closely than librarians do, indexers of the reference books used by librarians might be the first to spot unusual data in a reference work. Eventually all back-of the book indexers might be included in such a project. This is because any book which might answer a library patron’s question ought to be cited in the virtual reference collection catalog on the Internet. Furthermore, in the virtual reference collection catalog there should be a hypertext link from each book in the catalog to the index of that book.

While librarians and the books they use exist in a real space, the communities that librarians serve can be anywhere. Thus, there should be a tendency for libraries to continue serving their local patrons while also specializing into new areas according to the particular expertise and interests of individual librarians. As Phil Agre argues in his essay, “From Librarians to Communitarians” in the April 1996 issue of The Network Observer, an Internet magazine, “I don’t think we should be automating information professionals out of business. Quite the contrary, I think we should be giving them a bigger job: reaching out to support the collective cognition of particular communities.” These communities could be anywhere in the world.

Thus, there may be many versions of a virtual reference collection catalog that need to be available to a reference librarian. First there would be the virtual set of shelves that represents the librarians’ own real library reference collection. Then there would be paths among the combined shelves of a consortium of libraries which have similar patrons and collections. Finally there is the entire set of shelves where the paths wind among all the reference books in the country or the world. Also, there could be a graffiti version of the virtual reference collection catalog made available for everyone to make hypertext links in, not just librarians and indexers. Eventually all of these versions of the virtual reference catalog might include hypertext links to Web sites along with links among reference book citations.

Computer programmers will be needed, come more involved in helping patrons search the Internet. Librarians too are building Web pages as a way to provide information. For example, Mary Ellen Mort’s JobSmart Web page (on, a cooperative enterprise between a county library and a local television station, is a major Bay Area site that is expected to soon be replicated in other cities in California [ed. note: the JobSmart site is now found at]. These library Web pages are breaking down geographic boundaries and widening the patron base of public libraries.

And as library Web pages grow in sophistication, it’s easy to see that soon the only major distinction between online library catalogs and Web pages like Mary Ellen Mort’s, which list books will be the lack of hypertext links in the on-line catalogs. The limitations of traditional library subject cataloging coupled with the information explosion make the creation of such hypertext links imperative. And who better than indexers to work with and guide reference librarians in how to make such links?


1. Nancy K. Humphreys “Reference Annealing: Let’s Stop Reinventing the Answer” RQ v.34, no.4, Summer 1995, p. 459-463.

2. George P. Landow, Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1992),4