I grew up without a local public library. The Ramapo Catskill Library System in New York provided bookmobile service to my small town, so I at least had access to recreational reading, but it was limited. When my sister, Myrna, learned to drive, my parents joined the Ellenville Public Library, and every other week we’d check out the maximum number of books to feed our voracious reading appetites. Growing up, libraries for me were almost exclusively places where I could find books I wanted to read.

Years later, living in Madison, Wis., I came to appreciate the broader value of public library service. Using my neighborhood library branch, I found answers to questions about everything from my new community to what to read next and which brand of coffee maker to purchase. It was not long after that I entered the University of Wisconsin-Madison Library School.

As a book lover in library school, professor Margaret Monroe’s visionary work “Reader’s Services in the Context of the Public Library” spoke to the heart of what brought me to librarianship: a love of reading. But I remember professor Jack Clarke’s reference classes with equal fondness and appreciation. Clarke was passionate about the search, and, preinternet, one could get lost in the stacks looking for answers. Each class assignment was like a scavenger hunt, and it was great fun for a bibliophile like me—after all, the answers were all in books.

After graduation, my first job as a professional librarian was as a teen librarian for the Cook Memorial Library in Libertyville, Ill. But at Cook, all the librarians did shifts on the reference desk—and I loved it. As a person interested in pretty much everything, I derived great pleasure from helping patrons find answers to their questions, usually from almanacs and encyclopedias. I quickly became the mistress of irrelevant fun facts and quirky stories. And, of course, there were the more complex and pressing customer needs that required sections of the Illinois Revised Code, for example, or The Merck Manual—recommendations that always came with my librarian disclaimers to “consult your lawyer” or “consult your doctor.”

I still remember life before the internet, when librarians helped people find answers to real-life problems. It felt powerful—as though librarians held the keys to life’s answers, and I couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t just ask librarians whenever they needed info of any kind. How things have changed.

Then Came Google...

In the late 1990s, as internet search engines were becoming more powerful and Stanford PhD students Larry Page and Sergey Brin were creating Google, that powerful feeling librarians once had at the reference desk began to dim. Initially, librarians called out internet search engines, criticizing them as imperfect and often inaccurate reference tools. But not for long.

Sure, the public’s willingness to take an answer rather than the answer was problematic. But immediacy has its advantages. For many simple questions, patrons could find answers quickly online. For the tougher questions, librarians soon came to use search engines at least as a starting point for research. And as the internet grew more powerful, connections got faster, and Google and other search engines rapidly improved, online research was embraced by librarians.

Today, information—once the domain of libraries, and the provenance of reference librarians—is increasingly accessible, with answers to a range of questions available at the swipe of a finger. As we transitioned to a digital world, I, like many librarians, wondered what such powerful information technology would mean for librarians in the future. With so much information readily available, why would anyone need a reference librarian?

Of course, there have always been critics of librarians’ work on the reference desk. I am surely not the only librarian to have freaked out at Peter Hernon and Charles McClure’s 1986 study that suggested librarians answered reference questions correctly only about 55% of the time. But by and large, public trust remains high for libraries and librarians. In fact, a 2016 Pew Research Center survey reported that 78% of adults feel that public libraries help them find information that is trustworthy and reliable, and 76% say libraries help them learn new things. This is excellent news for libraries, and for their role in the future.

There is no question that the internet has changed how the public consumes information, how they seek information, and how librarians help connect the public to what they are looking for. But the change has largely been a good thing—the old model of reference librarianship could be intimidating for patrons. Today, what information seekers truly seem to want is the compassionate ear of a friend or the help of a neighbor.

How Can We Help?

Where is reference headed, and how is it being practiced in 2018? I asked some of my colleagues, and I heard a fairly consistent message: with so much information available online today, the value librarians add comes through their connection to the community.
John Szabo, city librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library, said his library is capitalizing on the “reference reimagined or reinterpreted” theme. Rather than wasting time renaming reference positions, he is focusing on putting librarians in a better position to interact with customers. After all, when librarians are more visible, and more easily able to receive questions, they can better help people find what they need. And when that happens, Szabo says, “we see our value skyrocket.”

The term reference does not contain the energy and activity we need and does
not represent the enthusiasm we are
generating in our communities.

Siobhan Reardon, president and director of the Free Library of Philadelphia, also recognizes that librarians and staff need to be embedded in the community, not stuck behind a desk, and they need to be collaborating with residents to meet their information and learning needs. The library is creating specialties in everything from health issues to culinary arts, drawing patrons who want to learn into the library through programs at facilities such as Philadelphia’s renowned Culinary Literacy Center. Further, Reardon hires community organizers to supplement the outreach work of Philadelphia’s neighborhood libraries.

Deepening engagement within library spaces is critical to a new vision for libraries across the nation. In Los Angeles, for example, a group of librarians have completed a rigorous Department of Justice training program to become certified in providing information about naturalization and citizenship—clearly an important need in many communities.

Enriched support services for business startups, job seekers, and those in need of social benefits are also increasingly important for urban libraries. Pat Losinski, CEO of the Columbus (Ohio) Metropolitan Library, believes that one of the library’s biggest challenges is to better respond to social and human service needs in his community. And he has recruited an IT advisory committee made up of CIOs from outside the library profession who are assisting the library in designing an information solution to help citizens better navigate these critical needs.

How reference is changing in fact speaks to how librarianship is changing, and it is an ongoing process. Ramiro Salazar, director of the San Antonio (Tex.) Public Library and Public Library Association president-elect, notes that, at his library, evaluation of all of the library’s services— reference included—is constant. “We understand that the way we deliver our services, including reference service, has changed significantly,” he says. “Our plan is to undertake a study that will allow us to redefine the roles of staff who we deploy throughout the library system.”

During a focus group on the development of ALA’s Libraries Transform campaign, John Carlo Bertot, professor and associate provost for faculty affairs at the University of Maryland College of Information Studies, captured the future of librarianship succinctly. He said that the job description for today’s librarian should simply read, “Like people? Want to solve problems? This is the job for you.”

What’s in a Name?

About a year ago, Armond Budish, the executive of Ohio’s Cuyahoga County, came to my library, the Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL) and asked us to train librarians and library assistants as “benefits navigators” to assist people enrolling in and complying with social benefits. I saw this as the opportunity to put Bertot’s prescient words into practice: We like people, and we want to solve their problems. This is our work.

Whether or not we call this reference work or something else shouldn’t matter. Libraries contain answers to a great many questions. But what we must realize is that to answer any question, we first need to seize the opportunity to hear it. In that respect, the term reference does not contain the energy and activity we need and does not represent the enthusiasm we are generating in our communities. Libraries today need to market themselves as places of learning and experience.

Tracy Strobel, deputy director at CCPL, explains it perfectly. “Using the term reference to describe what we do barely scratches the surface of what public libraries and librarians offer,” she says. “We are helpers, problem solvers, teachers, and connectors. I’m not quite ready to pronounce reference dead, because there are still plenty of people on the wrong side of the digital divide. But I think the prognosis for reference as we’ve known it is poor. Because using the term diminishes what we do today and limits how we’ll be thought of in the future.”

However you think of reference today, the reality is that librarians can’t just sit back and wait to deliver information any more. Our future is in proactively helping our communities ask the right questions, find the right answers, make meaning of the information they find, and put it to productive use.

PW libraries columnist Sari Feldman is executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio, and a former president of the Public Library Association and of the American Library Association.