April 29, 2008

Memory and the Reference Librarian

Ah, the intersection of cognitive and information science -- truly a dream for the CogSci Librarian. Today's confluence twins the reference librarian and memory, based on a recent article by Walter Butler in Reference Services Review entitled "Re-establishing Memory: Memory's Functions and the Reference Librarian."

Butler does a nice job of defining memory and then using some practical examples of how this relates to the work of a reference librarian. I'll summarize the bits I like, but if you are interested in memory, I recommend the article in full because the explanations are relatively simple and very clear, especially with respect to how memory works.

In Butler's introduction, he explains how memory is a "tacit expectation" for reference librarians, and he breaks memory down into three realms:
  • Memory in the librarian's brain
  • External devices which assist in knowledge storage
  • The establishment of memory in the patron's brain
For a great definition of memory, I turn to my trusty reference friend, the Dictionary of Psychology by Raymond Corsini. Memory, he writes, is
1) the ability to revive past experience, based on the mental processes of learning or registration, retention, recall or retrieval, and recognition; the total body of remembered experience. and 2) A specific past experience recalled.
The entry lists 24 different types of memory and provides 16 see also references. My other trusted friend in this realm is the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, which has 48 articles with memory in the title. If you want to learn more about memory, I encourage you to refer to these sources. But I digress.

Butler talks about memory in the context of both neuroscience (where memories are stored) and psychology (describing types of memory). It's fun to mesh the types of memory with the reference librarian's toolkit. For instance, semantic memory -- which refers to "knowledge about general facts," such as "words, chemical formulas, equations, and names" -- might map to ready reference in the librarian's world. Butler refers to Tulving by defining episodic memory as "something which is personally experienced and includes a place and time" -- which might map to the patron's personal interaction with the librarian. Finally, schematic memory, referring to how we perceive objects, people, and events, refers more to the place of interaction -- and maps (heh) to where the interaction takes place: in the library, online, or remotely.

Butler suggests that these types of memory relate to three areas of reference librarian tasks, which he selects from the Reference and User Services Association (2000) Guidelines for Information Services, where librarians are considered ...
  1. Service providers: Butler talks about working or short term memory and long-term memory for librarians as service providers with this example of a patron who asked where he can find the chemistry books: "The location of chemistry books is the long-term, schematic memory [for the librarian], whereas the user is the new, short-term memory, which has the potential to become an episodic memory." Reference librarians may use systems such as written lists, browser bookmarks, or folksonomy tags as external memory devices.
  2. Educators: Written notes for the patron, handed to her after the session, may serve to reinforce learning. Further, Butler suggests that an interview closure tool such as a short survey could serve as an external memory aid to help "trigger ... both the short-term memory and possibly strengthening associative long-term memory." Butler wonders how this kind of tangible memory tool might be used for phone transactions; I would argue that an email might serve to reinforce what the patron learned during the phone conversation . For IM / chat / electronic encounters, the physical act of typing back and forth with the librarian may serve as an additional learning function for the patron.
  3. Knowledge managers: Librarians need a lot of memory to manage their knowledge! There are many different types of knowledge to manage in the librarian's world: awareness of their users, technical and resource literacy, and the ability to appropriately share this information with their patrons are a few that Butler mentions; he adds that "the institution [must] practice memory skills" as well -- the librarian's knowledge is great, but it does the institution good if the librarian can share her managed knowledge with new colleagues.
Going back to librarians as educators, I was struck by Butler's assertion that if librarians use "diagrams to show a process of structure, users may be able to secure memory better." Remember (ha!) that next time you are tempted to draw a Venn Diagram to illustrate some complex library math.

And then go ahead and draw the diagram!

For More Information
  • Butler, Walter. (2008) Re-establishing Memory: Memory's Functions and the Reference Librarian. Reference Services Review, 36(1), 97-110. Available through Emerald online, or @ your library.
  • Corsini, Raymond. (1999) Dictionary of Psychology. Routledge. Possibly available @ your library.
  • Smelser, Neil J. and Paul B. Baltes. (2001) International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. Elsevier. Sometimes online and possibly available @ your library.

April 23, 2008

Confluence of Cats & Science

YouTube says: "Two professional engineers illustrate the proper care and practical benefits of cats." In this case, three cats. The video is narrated by engineer and "guy who has all those cats", who talks about food (especially tuna), cat hobbies (such as lounging, floral arrangement regurgitation, and various forms of low-energy performance art) and potential uses of cats as energy sources (not quite successful).

According to YouTube, "None of the cats, humans, or engineers were mistreated in the making of this film. They were however, slightly annoyed."

This video definitely some sound reasons for cat acquisition and retention.

(thanks to Christine for the link!)