Week 2: Libraries vs. YouTube – Reference Services

Patron saint of librarians Neil Gaiman put it best: “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.”
Reference Transactions are information consultations in which library staff recommend, interpret, evaluate, and/or use information resources to help others to meet particular information needs. Reference and User Services Association. (2008). Definitions of Reference.
If anything is a hallmark of the librarian’s identity, it’s putting people into meaningful contact with the information they seek. It’s one of the first things we learn about in grad school, and oftentimes what draws us to the profession in the first place.

1. The Tension

Unfortunately, this is also the service that people seem to feel Google and YouTube have made obsolete. In “Do we still need reference services in the age of Google and Wikipedia?” Stephen Buss highlights findings by the ALA that showed a 50% drop in reference questions to academic libraries between 1994 and 2008, which supports the idea that people don’t see libraries as the reference tools that they used to be regarded as.
Data source: ALA, Academic Libraries* in the united States Statistical trends, graphic by me
(Other more recent studies of university libraries suggest that the drop has stabilized: in 2013, Dennis Miles found in surveys of academic libraries that about 77% of libraries (n = 119) didn’t see a decline of reference questions at the reference desk over the previous 2 years. Also note: these stats talk about academic libraries, not public ones.)

2. The Function

So when people go to YouTube for reference services, what does that look like? We can get a feel for usage through Google Trends. If you’ve never used Google Trends before, it’s one of the quickest ways to peer into the zeitgeist of the internet at any given moment. Below are what’s been popular on YouTube over the past 30 days (August 15 to Sept 14):
Music is at the top for both queries and topics, along with current events and some bigger YouTubers.
On the left are topics that YouTube “thinks” people are looking for, and on the right are the actual search queries that folks use (these don’t correlate left to right in the picture, just to be clear). You can click on any of the topics or queries to see a break out of the term’s online presence too, including a timeline of popularity and a map of where queries happened. I actually really enjoy Google Trends as a tool, and use it surprisingly often because it’s really powerful and a good way to understand what people want to know about (more on that in a later blog post). In this way, YouTube tries to “get to the bottom of” what a user is really looking for, but not quite at the same depth as a librarian might in a reference interview. Whereas librarians might concern themselves with the intent of an information need, looking at Google Trends suggests that YouTube focuses more on mapping a search term to a relevant subject heading. A librarian might consider, “is this person asking about the price of prescription medication because they can’t afford it? Does the person have or need access to insurance?” While YouTube is more likely to try and figure out the literal meaning of the term: “drug prices per pill? Insured or Uninsured costs? Drug company stock prices?” and then serve up  answers to all of these questions at once, in an order that takes into consideration:
  • what others who looked for the same thing have watched
  • how much of it they have watched
  • what previous interactions with a given video were like (how often was it liked or commented on by other users?)
  • how often that word or related words appear in captions
  • etc (trade secrets)…
This is actually incredibly effective for queries like “how to hang a picture frame,” “smokey eye make up tutorial,” or “alexa play Despacito,” and it helps that YouTube also incorporates visual hints in the form of video thumbnails. But it’s important to mention here that whereas a librarian wants to help a patron find an answer to solve a problem, YouTube wants to help someone find something that will keep them watching on the platformeven if the viewer’s information need has already been satisfied — so that the platform can show more ads, and make more money.

3. The Opportunity

Keeping all of this in mind, YouTube is really good at providing the right information to people in a form that’s useful, digestible, relatable, and shareable. I would love to hear about cases where librarians are already working YouTube videos into their reference services, but for now, here are a few situations where I see natural fits for YouTube in libraries.

Reader advisory – BOOKTUBE

You know that feeling you get when you’ve just finished a book that really moves you, and you just want to share it with everyone because omg what a great book I need people to talk to about it? Good news: there’s a thing called BookTube, and it’s pretty danged great. NYT did a piece on it a couple of months ago, and you should read it if you do readers advisory (especially for young adults).
Book Tube has gotten so popular in the past few years in fact that publishers are sending BookTubers ARC’s to review on their channels. Setting aside the moral precariousness of free child labour that this occasionally leads to (“it’s fine! kids love reading!” says some exec after their company saves a few thousand dollars on advertising), there are advantages to pointing someone to their peers when it comes to encouraging good behaviour, and BookTube is a way to do that.

Educational materials – YOUTUBE EDU

DISCLAIMER: I see myself as a part of this group, so I have some big positive biases about it. Can’t say I didn’t warn you. YouTubeEDU is the term that a lot of folks use to discuss content on YouTube that is explicitly made to inform or people about subjects or topics, and it often (but not always) overlaps with what folks might learn through formal education systems (school). The two biggest examples that come to mind are Crash Course and Khan Academy; between the two of them there are 2.4 billion views on thousands of videos, many of which have found their way into classrooms worldwide. But while these two channels cover much of what you would expect in elementary and high school curriculum (thanks to grant money aimed toward that purpose), there are hundreds — if not thousands — of channels that teach about everything from astronomy to zoology. There are also channels that teach about topics that might not be taught in a community because of politics or religious beliefs, but that the ALA agrees are important for everyone to know. Yeah, I’m talking about sex education.
Source: Sexplanations There are of course concerns around whether or not something you find on YouTube is reliable or not (take the dumpster fire that is PragerU, for example) (sorry not sorry), but a little bit of work can be done to help patrons determine what’s reliable and what isn’t. (back in 2014 I started working on a list of educational YouTube channels that I found & vetted, and if I had the time/money I’d like some day to take it and turn it into a tool specifically for libraries. let me know if you have money to help make that happen :D)

Work/Life Skills – How-to videos

One could argue that how-to videos should also fall into YouTube EDU, and in fact YouTube the Company lumps educational and how-to videos into a broader category of “learning content” for statistical purposes (I’d source this but it was at a presentation that YouTube gave this summer that I attended). But I tend to think of them as separate because generally, how-to videos are made to guide someone through a discrete process or set of steps to complete a task.
How-to videos include beauty tips like make-up tutorials, professional skills like how to take blood pressure, academic things like how to study effectively, and tons more.


There are of course tons of other kinds of videos on YouTube, and ultimately it’s up to the individual library to decide how to use them. But I wanted to highlight these three genres because I think that they do the best job at showing the opportunity that exists in using YouTube for libraries’ benefits. This post mostly covered reference services and its related practices, but if you’re curious about similarities & differences of how YouTube and libraries approach their collections, see Week 2.1: Collection Management. As always, thanks for reading, and until next time don’t forget to ask questions.

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