Your task is to develop a persona, and make up a research question that persona might ask. It can be anything you want. Once you have a question, take it to a reference desk at a library/archive/historical society of your choosing. Then write a paper about the experience.
Sound familiar? No, it’s not a rejected subplot from Skyfall. It’s an assignment I’ve encountered in two different classes this fall, which is my first semester of library school. And from talking with other LIS students, it seems like this is a common assignment regardless of your school. It’s the “secret shopper” theory of observation at work. An anthropologist might call it “extreme participant observation.” The theory says you’ll learn more about something if you immerse yourself in it, giving no impression that you’re REALLY doing research. That the other participant doesn’t know they’re part of an experiment should make their actions more truthful than if they knew they were being observed.
From having gone through the two assignments this semester, I can concede that there is something to this approach. I had horrendous experiences with several institutions while attempting to get a general reference question answered for the first assignment. More recently, I had a less awful, but still less than stellar experience at a certain world-renowned archive (no, not that one, the other one) while trying to complete the second assignment. Putting aside my sociologist/anthropologist hat for a second, I can say that I probably wouldn’t have had those experiences had those behind the desk known what I was up to.
But from the beginning, the ethics of these types of assignments have bothered me, and continually came up as I discussed this with others. Is lying to librarians and archivists the best way to experience reference services? Additionally, as Alison pointed out earlier this week, many of us are pretty introverted and struggle with interactions to begin with. Is adding a certain level of deceit to the heightened blood pressure and clammy hands we’re already feeling actually worth it?
Those I’ve talked to have offered up opinions on every part of the spectrum. Some have pointed out quite rightly that introverts need to be pushed out of their shells sometimes, and that the data gathered is really invaluable both for students and for the profession. Others have told me that their anxiety got to be so great that they caved and told the reference person what they were doing and ended up having valuable conversations out of it.
Academic Librarian wrote a series of posts about this from the perspective of the person being asked these questions a while back that I think are worth reading. While it’s a sort of over-the-top sense of how our professional colleagues might feel about encountering waves of LIS students asking questions they obviously don’t want the answers to, it’s worth considering the impact of these assignments. What happens when you go back to that library and apply for a job and the reference librarian asks how your project about 13th century depictions of Minotaurs came out? Or perhaps more relevantly, what if that librarian sussed you out and now doesn’t want to give you an interview?
I find myself landing in the middle on this issue. It’s a valuable style of assignment, no doubt. But most of us have come to library school to network and gain practical experience, not necessarily to do research. Perhaps a more subtle form of observation, or a shadowing/mentoring program would be a better way to go about this, as well as help us build professional networks? I honestly don’t have an answer.
What do you think? Are these “secret shopper” assignments common in your program? What’s been your experience? What do you see as the value (or lack thereof) of this approach? Tell us!
Author’s note: The above photo was an outtake from a photo shoot for an annotated bibliography group project where we were given free reign to do whatever we wanted, within a couple of parameters. Now THAT was an assignment we all got behind.