It’s a sign of the digital times we live in—the seemingly endless proclamations of things in our industry that are dead or dying: print, reading, libraries; heck, even publishers themselves have all made the list. Just this month, in fact, the novelist Will Self buried all of those things in a single Guardian essay. “The Novel Is Dead,” declared the movie trailer-like headline to Self’s piece. “...This Time, It’s for Real.”

A quick scan of the last two decades would seem to confirm a similar, fatal diagnosis for library reference. In public libraries, reference statistics have declined precipitously; spending on reference has as well. The great print reference collections that once served generations of library users are now largely gone, the space refitted with rows of computers and coffee bars. Google, Wikipedia, and the ever-expanding realm of the Internet now reign.

But, despite being tagged and bagged in article after article for more than a decade, a survey of U.S. public library users released last year by the Pew Internet & American Life Project turned up this notable finding: 80% of respondents said reference librarians remain a “very important” service of libraries.

No one disputes that technology has forever changed the way we find, access, and use information. But with reference garnering such robust public approval numbers from Pew last year, is it perhaps time to reframe the reference conversation? Is reference really dead?

“Well, the reference I was trained to do is certainly dead, I can tell you that,” says University of Washington iSchool professor Joseph Janes. “I got my M.L.S. degree in 1983, and the world of reference I was trained for is almost entirely gone.” But the need for good library reference remains, he says, and resources and practices are shifting to meet that need.

Jim Draper, v-p and general manager of Gale, one the world’s largest reference publishers, says he “totally understands” the ‘reference is dead’ conversation. “It’s been around ever since the digital thing happened,” he acknowledges. “But I do think it’s time to have a different dialogue. What’s dead or alive isn’t what matters. What matters is whether reference is evolving in a way that helps users get better value from it. What I think we are really talking about today is: What is reference?”

Rolf Janke, former v-p of SAGE reference, and the founder of Mission Bell Media, a new reference publisher launched this month, says he would frame the conversation this way: “Reference isn’t dead… yet.” The “yet,” he explains, is because the clock is ticking on those not constantly thinking “way outside the box” about their reference programs.

Oxford University Press reference publisher Damon Zucca agrees. “It is undeniably true that professional reference publishing has been disrupted by free information online,” he says. “But I wouldn’t say reference is dead. Rather, that it has changed dramatically. What has perished is the old way of doing things.”

'Boxed' Out

Among the many challenges facing reference librarians and publishers in the digital age, changing the perception that reference is dead may be the biggest. As Zucca suggests, “the old way” of doing reference is long gone. So why, in 2014, has the larger reference narrative remained so stubbornly focused on the death of the old rather than on all the latest developments?

Awareness is one major reason, says InfoDocket’s Gary Price. “Most people have no idea that the library has these powerful digital reference tools,” he says, “and that with a library card they are available 24/7/365, from anywhere in the world.”

Few in the industry have a better grasp of the breadth of services and resources being released in the reference market than Price, a librarian by training, who in addition to reporting new reference developments pretty much every day on InfoDocket, also works as a consultant, and is a co-author of the book The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can’t See. For Price, better marketing is essential to changing the ‘reference is dead’ narrative.

“Reference has become the Web for many people,” he says. “It’s Google this, and Wikipedia that, and, more often than not, that means whatever a user finds in the first five results from Google. And unless someone does something to market all these reference tools, they will go unknown, and unused. And when a library doesn’t have enough money for, say, more e-books from OverDrive, where are they going to take that money from? All these databases no one is using.”

This is not to say that library or publisher marketing staffs are doing a bad marketing job. At the New York Public Library, for example, librarians create online content, like blog posts, to engage patrons and to push information out about resources and services. “Being in a place where people online can find us, even if they are not really thinking about asking a librarian for help, can help us be out in front,” says Lauren Lampasone, who works in the NYPL’s Reference and Research Services department.

But marketing library reference is an age-old problem, Janes says, and the nut of problem is fundamentally the same as it has always been: “people don’t know what they are not getting.” In the digital age, that problem has been infinitely magnified. On one hand, as Price suggests, many users remain unaware that libraries spend millions every year to license powerful digital resources for them, or that a reference librarian can offer skilled help. At the same time, Google enjoys the most potent marketing advantage of all: a single, simple search box on a clean white screen.

“It is easier now more than ever to not know what you’re not getting,” Janes says. “You’re just plucking words into a screen. And we’ve all been trained by Google to believe that our search results are going to come back instantly, ranked by relevance, and,” he chuckles, “it don’t work like that in WorldCat!”

Reference publishers have of course worked hard to create better discovery tools for users, and Janes acknowledges that there are “very potent discovery tools” out there. The problem is, those tools are often too complicated, and intimidating. And in the hands of people who don’t know what they are doing, they can be worse than useless, Janes says, they can be counterproductive. “Discovery tools are a great idea,” he notes, “until a user gets 25,000 search results and runs screaming for Google.”


In 2012, the Encyclopaedia Britannica made headlines when it announced it would finally stop printing after 244 years, a story that added fresh fuel to the ‘reference is dead’ trope. But in press reports, Britannica’s CEO Jorge Cauz seemed somewhat bemused by all the fuss. After all, by the time Britannica made its 2012 announcement, it had been online for 18 years, since 1994, and print represented just 1% of the company’s revenue.

Indeed, the Britannica story revealed a lingering public perception of library reference—the A-Z encyclopaedia days. Few apparently had noticed that reference publishers and librarians had already embraced their digital future, and in pretty impressive fashion.

From databases and journal collections to dictionaries and single topic works, the reference products and services available today are vast, authoritative, highly specialized, multimedia, and no longer confined to shelves. Reference librarians, too, are no longer confined, whether to a desk or even to the library. Increasingly reference librarians are “embedded” where patrons might take advantage of their skills, whether that’s walking the floor, tablet in hand or online, via chat or email services. Online chats, Janes says, are now a primary reference transaction at the University of Washington Libraries.

Strikingly, while many people’s perceptions of library reference remain stuck in the past, reference service has been entirely transformed. Where trade publishing, by contrast, has been largely content to produce digital facsimiles of print books and call it innovation, reference librarians and publishers have welcomed fundamental changes to their work. And despite a persistent narrative that says Google, Wikipedia, and the vast riches of the open Web are killing off library reference, reference publishers today see the Web as their lifeblood.

“The open Web is a near perfect medium for reference publishing,” says OUP’s Zucca. “Today, with rich, well-structured data and a website optimized for search engine discovery, individual reference essays have a much better chance of being read and used than in the days when they were tucked away in a book on a shelf next to many other multi-volume sets.”

The Web has also enabled reference publishers to take on new content, as communities form on the Web and expose new subject areas, as well as to release content faster, and create it more efficiently, Zucca says. “We don’t have a jagged, stop-and-start, 10-year edition cycle,” he explains. “We publish and update continuously.” And of course, exposure on the open web, including Google and Wikipedia, drives discovery of reference products, he says.

“It is absolutely critical that publishers and librarians view Google and Wikipedia as opportunities, and not as competition,” Zucca says. So critical, he notes, that OUP recently embarked on a pilot program through which Wikipedia editors can get gratis access to Oxford’s reference sites for use in researching and writing articles.

“Years ago, when Wikipedia came along, some of my colleagues asked, ‘what does this mean to your reference business? Is it going to kill that business?’” Draper recalls. “And I said, no, it’s going to stimulate interest in more reference. And that’s exactly what it’s done.”

Draper says Wikipedia is “a magnificent thing,” despite its issues. “Its reliability is always open to question, but a smart user knows that,” he says. “I think Wikipedia, Google, and the general open Web stimulate discussion and dialogue around facts, figures, and the need for contextualization of those things, and criticism of those things.”

Indeed, where reference publishers once traded on collections of facts, the “contextualization” of facts is now a core mission. “I think good reference today, it reveals somehow,” Draper offers. “It also organizes, and shapes ideas. If I were to go back 20, 30 years ago, when we created more encyclopaedias with associations, those were magnificent collections of facts. Today, we build resources where the facts are embedded with the potential for outcomes much, much more clearly.”

Effectively marketing those “outcomes” could very well hold the key to changing the reference narrative. But so far, that’s been easier said than done.

“We have to help people better understand what we do, and the value we bring,” says Janes. “People don’t want to hear about databases, they don’t want to hear about resources, or tools, or process. They want to hear about things we can help them do: Here’s how to get a better grade. Here’s how to get a better job. Here’s how to apply for a grant. We know from research that’s what people come to public libraries for.”

Measuring Success

No question, the precipitous decline in traditional reference statistics in recent years has also fueled talk that reference is dying. But as the Internet changes the nature of reference, the ways we’ve traditionally measured success in reference no longer tell the whole story—especially, as the reference conversation shifts to “outcomes.” This represents yet another significant challenge for reference librarians—after all, exactly how do you measure outcomes?

“We’re great at statistics, and great at anecdotes, but not so good at connecting the dots,” Janes says of libraries. “And, I sympathize, because it is very hard to do. I mean, how do you know if you changed somebody’s life because you recommended the right book? How do we instrument ourselves in a way to demonstrate that?”

Julie Todaro, dean of library services at Austin Community College, and author of the forthcoming book Library Management for the Digital Age: A New Paradigm, agrees. She is adamant that libraries must find new ways to effectively assess their practices. “We want reference assistance to be all about the user,” she says, “but librarians today must also script interactions to aid them in identifying reference outcomes. It is no longer acceptable to count only the number of people who asked questions, for example, or the number of resources found.” And with good reason, she notes. Reference service today has become as much about helping users frame questions, to understand what it is they are really looking for, as it is about finding answers.

Draper says he is “definitely more cautious” around simple statistics like retrievals or searches completed or sessions. “It’s ironic that these are still the measures of value in the minds of many librarians when in fact the fewer searches needed probably means a better outcome, because the software that supported those searches is more effective.”

Regardless, the reference community has to figure it out, Janes insists. “At some point, you are accountable to somebody, and they are going to want to know what their money is going for,” he says. “And if all you have is, ‘I’m too busy, but look at these shiny three anecdotes,’ you’re in trouble, because other services you are competing with for resources are going to have statistics. The police department is going to know many crimes it solved. The IT people are going say how many computers they’ve deployed. You have to have an answer, too. That’s the way the game is going to be played.”