For years, we’ve been hearing that traditional library reference service is dead. In reality, reference just disappeared, like Jimmy Hoffa. But unlike in the case of Hoffa, no one in the library field seems intent on figuring out what happened to reference. In fact, many librarians are intent on carrying on as though little has changed.

Sure, librarians are quick to acknowledge that library reference is different in the digital age. But even the innovations in reference service today are predicated on the same, age-old definition of a library reference transaction: people have information needs, and it’s our job to resolve them. And come hell or high water, no matter how desperate we may look, we are going to find people with information needs and, damn it, resolve those needs, because that’s what we librarians do!

That’s the problem. The library today is still a trusted institution, but the public is coming to us with different expectations. Clinging to an outdated reference mission has left many libraries struggling to meet these new expectations.

A History

Let’s pause for a moment and recall the general arc of reference services. Pre-Internet, a librarian would sit at a usually imposing desk surrounded by vast print collections. These reference librarians were true gatekeepers, and chances were that if you had research to do, or even just a nagging question, you had to approach the desk and ask for help. Those who did usually discovered that reference librarians were valuable partners who could help them with myriad challenges, from completing degrees to creating travel itineraries or writing books. But the dynamic was so intimidating that most patrons never approached the desk.

As the Internet expanded, there was growing anxiety among librarians about losing control over knowledge. Librarians first responded with efforts to vet web content, which resulted in the Librarians Internet Index, or to catalogue it, with projects like OCLC’s ambitious Cooperative Online Resource Catalog. The idea was to harness digital content and continue to approach digital reference much like we did in print.

In the 1990s, virtual reference blazed across the library sky, generating huge interest among librarians, and a new business for publishers and vendors. But virtual reference in public libraries never took off like we expected it to. In public libraries today, the service draws little interest from patrons and little enthusiasm from librarians.

For a while we tried to sell the public on the notion that they’re terrible at search and need librarians to show them how to properly seek and evaluate online content. It turns out that adults are as excited about information literacy as they are about flossing.

More recently, there’s been lots of attention paid to the reference desk itself, as though better interior design will buck up declining reference usage. Desks are being reinvented to be less like impenetrable fortresses and more like nonthreatening kiosks. Reference librarians, meanwhile, are experimenting with roving service—basically, walking around the building and trying to drum up business, rather than waiting for the public to come to a designated area. It’s not clear that roving reference is at all helpful to our patrons. But with doctors now saying that sitting is more dangerous than smoking, it may at least extend the life of some library staff.

Today, there’s talk about “community” librarians: basically, reference librarians who leave the building and embed themselves in groups—such as the Common Council or the Business Improvement District—providing them with information services. It’s the same simple idea behind roving: if users won’t come to us, we’ll go to them. It doesn’t hurt that the services ends up supporting some of the most influential members of the community. But few citizens would consider this a good use of their tax dollars.

A Case Study

Where are we now? I offer my library, the White Plains Public Library, as a pretty typical example of public libraries across the country. In the past three years, my library has purchased one reference book: the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I look in wonder at all the new reference publications on display at the American Library Association conference. Yes, they’re darn handsome books. But who’s ordering these?

Over the past four years, I can recall using only three reference resources with the public. One is Consumer Reports, which the over-55 crowd still asks for.

The second is Black’s Law Dictionary, which a gentleman recently asked for. Surprised by the request, I commented that we don’t get asked for this title much anymore. “Oh, I don’t really need it,” the patron said. “This is just an old friend I met in prison, and I like to read it every now and then.”

Third, an adult came in wanting to learn about the Mayan civilization and needed to know where to start—a classic reference question! I suggested some titles, beginning with an essay in an encyclopedia. I advised him to use the bibliography at the end of the essay for more resource suggestions. I watched out of the corner of my eye as he quietly abandoned the encyclopedia a few minutes later.

You may think we use so few print reference books these days because our librarians are spending all of our time searching online. Sure, a few patrons who don’t own computers will request things like addresses and phone numbers. But that’s about it for librarians.

We do license access to a few reference databases. But when I recommend them to users their eyes glaze over. We mostly stick to the databases purchased by our state library, which receive only modest usage. Our digital spending is more often on services such as and on popular content such as Midwest Tape’s Hoopla.

There are two exceptions to the above scenarios: one is the steady stream of questions we get for help finding stuff in the library (print books and DVDs, for example), and for placing holds. But that’s just because our online catalogue remains a conundrum for the average user. The other is for local history and genealogy information, most of which is locked away in print and microform and typically requires some kind of mediation between librarian and patron to access.

But here’s the interesting thing: even as traditional reference transactions continues to decline, the use of our building is surging, increasing about 20% every year. And even though users can now access information online quickly and easily through devices they carry in their pockets, we still interact with huge numbers of people at the library.

What Patrons Want

So what do people want from us? They want help doing things, rather than finding things. You could argue that users have always wanted this, and you’d be right. But the extent of this shift in recent years is unprecedented in the history of library services.

A lot of what people want help with involves technology. Sometimes it is assistance with the technology we offer at the library—downloading e-books for example. But often it’s more involved: creating and improving resumes, conducting job searches, uploading files, seeking insurance information. E-government has landed squarely in the library’s lap, and we’re finding that citizens regularly need help utilizing government sites.

And we’ve become the help desk for the community. It is assumed that libraries mostly help bridge the digital divide, assisting the poor and disenfranchised in getting online. But it’s more complicated than that. Keeping up with the full range technology today is a challenge for everyone, and when users have to fill in a knowledge gap, no matter their educational level or economic status, they’re showing up at the reference desk.

Helping patrons do things is radically different from traditional reference. It requires different knowledge from library staff, and greater flexibility in time and staffing, so that a librarian can actually work with a patron for 30 minutes and not just refer them to a book, or a class. It also requires a different relationship with our users—to truly help a job seeker, for example, you may need to follow up with a phone call in a week, and the week after that. It’s not easy. The shifting boundaries, exposure to personal information, unclear expectations, and the need for instructional knowledge is creating anxiety among public service staff, rightfully so. But librarians have no choice but to try their best and to face these changes head on. Rigidly sticking to a reference service that no one needs any longer is a recipe for obsolescence.

What to Do?

For years, librarians have been poring over virtual reference transcripts for clues to the future, and yet little formal research has been conducted on what’s actually happening at reference desks today. It’s time to acknowledge that something else—which we are only beginning to understand—is taking the place of traditional reference service in public libraries.

In The Atlas of New Librarianship, author R. David Lankes writes about moving from traditional reference transactions to “knowledge creation” as a model for librarianship. Perhaps this is what I’m talking about. But the term “knowledge creation” is still so ill defined and impossible to measure, I’ll resist it for now. What I see happening is still too dynamic to codify.

Meanwhile, most library and information schools either don’t discuss reference services at all, or do so in a way that is more relevant to libraries 15 years ago. Check out this assignment from one of the top-10 library school programs: “Examine the following bibliographies and be prepared to discuss what kinds of questions you could answer with these reference works: Books in Print, Ulrich’s International Periodical Directory, Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media, Literary Market Place, WorldCat.” I can tell you right now what questions you’ll be answering with these bibliographies: none.

Still, there is room for optimism. A report released just last month from the University of Maryland’s iSchool, “Re-envisioning the MLS: Findings, Issues and Considerations,” acknowledges that offering “a more immersive and transformative experience,” as opposed to simply recommending a possible resource, “is a large challenge.”

That’s a start. Where we go from here, I can’t say. But I know this: the challenge isn’t going to get any easier until we start talking about it.