One year ago, columnist Brian Kenney wrote a piece for PW titled “Where Reference Fits in the Modern Library.” The column addressed his frustration with the gulf between reference work as he experienced it in his library, the White Plains (N.Y.) Public Library, and how reference is discussed in the library profession and taught in library and information schools.
“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,” Kenney wrote, concluding that today’s library user wants help doing things, rather than finding things. “You could argue that users have always wanted this, and you’d be right,” he observed. “But the extent of this shift in recent years is unprecedented in the history of library services.”
Brian would later confide that when he submitted the piece, he was unsure of whether anyone would respond to it. “Doesn’t everyone already know all this?” he says he wondered. Turns out, librarians did already know all this—but they were also hungry for a frank conversation about the state of library reference. The piece was shared thousands of times on social media.
A year later, we wanted to continue that conversation about reference—so we reached out to a group of librarians and asked them to revisit Brian’s 2015 column. Why did it touch a nerve? Where did he get it right, and where did he miss the mark? And, most importantly, how do they see reference service in libraries evolving?
What’s Your Problem?
Rebekkah Smith Aldrich, coordinator for library sustainability at the Mid-Hudson Library System in New York, says that Kenney’s column “hit the nail on the head.” Librarians still have an important role to play when it comes to solving people’s information needs, she observes, but it cannot be a passive one.
“Waiting for people to come and ask us a question has been and continues to be a recipe for irrelevance,” Aldrich says. “Today, we need targeted efforts that speak to where people’s passions and aspirations lie. We need to target the unique things we can corner the market on locally: reader advisory, homework help, digital fluency, local history, hacker spaces, and working outside of our buildings with collaborators to make our communities more sustainable and resilient.”
Andrew Pace, executive director of WorldShare community development at OCLC, agrees. “Reference librarians should not be as passive as those old reference resources that stood on the shelves, waiting to spill their treasures,” he says. “We should be striving to get to the root of the patron’s problem. Not ‘what are you looking for?’ or even ‘how can I help you?’ but ‘what problem are you trying to solve?’ ”
Librarians say that question—what problem are you trying to solve?—is the heart of today’s reference mission. With so much information now available online, often for free and accessible via the increasingly powerful devices we carry in our pockets, answers to questions that once involved a trip to a library reference desk are now answered in seconds. But that, librarians say, is not a threat to library reference, but an opportunity.
“While some of us got to answer real reference questions once upon a time, we need to be glad that people can do it themselves now,” says Rivkah Sass, executive director at the Sacramento (Calif.) Public Library. “That gives us time to develop new services that matter in our changing world.”
That is largely what is happening. In his original piece, Kenney noted that while “traditional” reference questions have all but disappeared from his library, innovative new programming has led to a sharp increase in the use of the library building—a common refrain among the librarians we heard from. Increasingly, the imposing reference desks of the past, where librarians once sat as gatekeepers, are being retired, and the space is being refashioned for learning and collaboration.
“We moved to a single service point more than 10 years ago, acknowledging that the idea of a librarian sitting behind a foreboding desk waiting to answer reference questions was falling to the wayside,” says Erin Berman, innovations manager at the San José (Calif.) Public Library. “Fundamentally, however, we haven’t really changed in our core mission. Our method is just different now. Instead of someone coming in and wanting to learn how to do something and a librarian pointing them to a book, we now offer them a class, or personal assistance in learning how to do that thing, be it learning to play the guitar or write a résumé.”
Indeed, SJPL has long been a trailblazer in providing such groundbreaking library services—in 2004, Library Journal named the Library of the Year. And this year, at the annual ALA meeting in Orlando, Fla., they won the Excellence in Reference and Adult Services Award from RUSA (Reference and User Services Association, a division of ALA) for their Virtual Privacy Lab project, an innovative free online learning tool developed by SJPL librarians to help educate people about their online behavior.
Getting more involved in outcomes, librarians say, is critical to the future of reference.
“We can’t add value to dispensing facts when the web has made facts into easy-to-attain commodities,” Pace says, adding that librarians in the past have perhaps been “too journalistic” in their reference service: “ ‘Here are the best resources... now take them away.’ Why not get involved in the creation process? Why not judge the output, like the guy in the clothing store? It’s time to try something different.”
Make the Connection
Kenney’s assertion that library patrons today are more interested in “doing” things rather than “finding” things is on target, says Miguel Figueroa, director of the ALA’s Center for the Future of Libraries, an office chartered in 2014 to focus on the “long-term societal, technological, educational, and demographic trends” that affect libraries. And, as technology continues to make it easier to search for and retrieve information, the perceived importance of finding things is likely to decline further, he says, especially as algorithms and artificial intelligence increasingly push people to the information they think they need.
“But even as finding information becomes easier, connecting remains a challenge,” Figueroa says, “and connecting is the key to learning, and doing. And that is an opportunity for reference and library instruction.” Indeed, more than a few librarians said “connecting” was key to the future of reference.
“Like Brian Kenney’s, my crystal ball is still foggy, but to me, the essence of reference endures—it is still about helping people connect with something,” observes Jason LeDuc, director of the Dothan Houston County Library System in Alabama. “People today are increasingly driven by the need for social connection to other people, and their communities, not just the information libraries can provide. If we successfully help people out as best we can with whatever it is they currently need, they’ll return for more.”
So what does that mean for the publishers and aggregators creating the products for library patrons? Not surprisingly, given their central role in the library mission, books still appear to be an important way for libraries to connect patrons to good information. In fact, a number of librarians said Kenney’s omission of reader advisory from his column was conspicuous. “Librarians, especially for children and teens, still do a lot of reader advisory, and I would lump that in with reference services,” SJPL’s Berman says, who added that even reader advisory has gone digital via online forms.
“I once had a very smart reference librarian tell me that reader advisory wasn’t really reference—it made me laugh when I heard it, it makes me laugh now,” Sass says. “In fact, most people who meet librarians socially want to know what that librarian is reading and want to hear recommendations. Since reading is so important to everything we do, why not celebrate our power to help everyone find just the right book?” For his part, Kenney agrees, noting that reader advisory as reference service deserves a whole article of its own.
One area where librarians were noticeably not bullish, however, is aggregated databases, which Kenney pointed out in his 2015 piece get little use at his library.
“In my not-very-humble-and-somewhat-outright-hostile opinion, reference databases are the modern snake oil for today’s libraries, offered as a tonic to cure something we don’t even have,” says Andy Woodworth, reference and adult services librarian at Cherry Hill (N.J.) Public Library. “The database people say, ‘You love your patrons and want to make sure that they have every resource they could possibly need, right?’ It’s playing the Bad Librarian card, when the Even Worse Librarian card is buying products you don’t need at prices that aren’t sustainable.”
It’s worth pointing out that not too long ago, digital databases were supposed to be the future of reference.
“We expected online databases to replace print materials,” says Audra Caplan, former director of the Harford County (Md.) Public Library, and a past president of the Public library Association. “I spent many hours introducing the community to these ‘valuable’ databases, and our librarians spent an inordinate amount of time trying to convince the public of their usefulness. But the truth is, with a few exceptions like genealogy databases and reader-advisory tools, the databases were too hard to navigate, and the public is just as happy to rely on Wikipedia and Google.”
Veronda Pitchford, director of membership development and resource sharing at the Reaching Across Illinois Library System, agrees. “We create serious friction between patrons and the information they need by pointing them to databases and platforms that require log-ins and have varying, often complicated, user experiences,” she says. The result: patrons go elsewhere to get information—taking from the library only “a serious case of platform fatigue.”
Turns out, navigating databases was not much fun for librarians either, and reference librarians today certainly seem eager for something else.
“Determining the definitive paths to a finite set of objects doesn’t sound like a very interesting future,” Figueroa explains. “Especially when, instead, we could be observing, connecting, and making sense of a growing system of objects, and working to empower others to do something similar.”
Back to School
Kenney’s article, of course, had its share of critics. Library Ronin’s Francisca Goldsmith, a consultant, and the author of Crash Course in Contemporary Reference (ABC-Clio, Nov.), says she was disappointed with the piece. “There were just so many unexamined assumptions rolled together to make—or fit—a theory that the reference services contemporary libraries provide are the same as they ever were, and thus fairly useless in today’s culture,” she says. But librarians. Goldsmith included, largely agreed that the piece helped further what needs to be an ongoing conversation about what library reference is, and what it could be.
“If I was to suggest something for a revisit, the reformation of library education in regard to reference services really needs to be addressed,” Woodworth says. “It needs a customer service revamp with a side of social work and a generous helping of interpersonal communication and psychology. Finding things is one thing, but figuring out what the person really wants is another. These are the skills that can change people’s lives, and those skills are what librarians really need these days.”
Marie Radford, professor and director of the Communication and Information Program at Rutgers University in New Jersey says keeping such programs fresh, in the midst of great technological and societal change is an ongoing challenge. “At Rutgers University, we are in the midst of a total curriculum reboot, and reference courses are continuously updated,” she says. But from her place on the front lines of library education, she is enthusiastic about the future of library reference, whatever the technological or cultural challenges may come.
“I’m constantly amazed by the new generation of librarians, who are amazingly bright, dedicated, and passionate about libraries and reference services,” Radford says. “The reference future is in their hands, and I believe they are totally up to the challenge of figuring it all out.”