Is reference service dead?

Eli Neiburger of the Ann Arbor Library District proclaims that “reference is dead” and that Ann Arbor will be cutting reference librarians in order to hire more IT-related staff in an article in the Library Journal today. The article raises some interesting points, and in light of the recent online (and offline) conversations surrounding remarks on the future of academic librarianship by McMaster University Librarian Jeff Trzeciak, is reference service in libraries really dead? Should libraries be replacing librarians with IT folks?

Neiburger does concede “the fact that a trained librarian can bring value to a reference interaction”, but argues that armed with Google and an internet connection, the need for reference librarians has diminished. “Travel agents were outmoded because people felt they had better access to the information than they could get from the travel agents”, he said, and just as travel agents have become a thing of the past, so will the anachronistic reference librarian. With everything on Google, who needs them?

The problem with this kind of reasoning is that it becomes a “chicken-and-egg” argument about the future of our profession. Are patrons abandoning reference services because they are finding what they need elsewhere? Or are we as librarians not responding to the true needs of the patrons and transforming reference services and proving their value and worth to patrons?

I am all for finding new ways of thinking about the services, collections, programming, and support that we provide to our patrons. The ever-changing world in which we find ourselves demands this. But instead of declaring reference services dead and a thing to be put in the history books, I think we need to reexamine reference service and transform it into something that has real value for our patrons. What this “new reference paradigm” looks like or how it works is up to us as librarians. Let’s not give it over to the geeks and the techies. Good reference service is not technical support.

Profession vs Professionalism

A few weeks ago, I had a Facebook conversation with a group of librarians on apathy in librarianship and the fear of “rocking the boat”. Concerns were expressed that as a profession we were becoming apathetic in the name of “professionalism”. Librarians were characterized by one as “sterile, grey and beige, clean, unassuming, and boring”.

One of my biggest complaints and concerns about our profession is the lack of open and honest debate of issues in the same of consensus, team building, and professionalism. As a group, librarians tend to be conflict adverse and instead seek to build a bland consensus, especially in matters concerning the important issues surrounding our collective futures and our profession. We choose professionalism over profession.

Profession is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an act of openly declaring or publicly claiming a belief, faith, or opinion.” Any profession needs debate and discourse to survive. Librarians need to take a stand on what we feel is important, even if it makes us unpopular. Professionalism, on the other hand, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace.” I would argue that librarianship needs more profession and less professionalism, especially in matters concerning the profession itself.

There are ramifications to taking an unpopular stand, but I would rather be on the side of right than on the side of “the right thing to do”. Being a professional means that we “profess” a belief in something, meaning that we need to take a stand. Too many librarians are more than happy to sit by like a wallflower at the Junior Prom rather than get involved, take a stand, and improve the profession and the world around us.

Stephen Abram is a smart guy, but I disagree with some of his characterizations of  Jeff Trzeciak’s presentation and the debate that followed in his recent blog post. What he sees as a “piling on”, I see as a vigorous debate over the future of our profession. This type of open debate is needed in the profession in order to ensure its survival. And I am not so concerned about leaving a digital record of our debates on the profession. Debates in other academic professions have be chronicled in academic journals and elsewhere for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The blogosphere is just the newest medium of academic discourse.

I do agree that vigorous debate does not give license for ad hominem attacks on one’s character or person. But vigorous debate is not piling on or bullying, unless attacks are getting personal. We need to debate ideas, not personalities. And we need to stop penalizing librarians for taking a stand. We need debate in librarianship, with the security and freedom to do so in an environment where the ramifications are felt in the betterment of the profession, not in the career path of the individual.

Library Renovations are Nothing Like HGTV

Library renovations are definitely not something taught in Library School. And the guys on HGTV or TLC make it renovations looks so easy. Mike Holmes manages to refoundation an entire house in under 30 minutes with nary a blemish or broken dish in sight. But that’s TV, and not reality.

I have had plenty of experience as a project manager in the library software world, and like to think that I did pretty well in that arena. New implementations flowed (relatively) smoothly from sales, to software implementation, to installation, and finally the library went live on a brand-spanking-new integrated library system. Construction projects work nothing like software implementations, I have come to find out. They are full of stops and starts and endless meetings with facilities folks, architects, designers, and a whole host of people peeling up carpet and measuring every square inch of the Library.

My Library is being renovated this summer, and that is the good news. What started out as a simple plan to recarpet and repaint the Library has now morphed into a much larger project requiring collection moves, library staff in exile, and asbestos abatement. While I am certain the final product will be lovely and be universally appreciated by faculty, students, and staff alike, I’m a little nervous about everything going as smoothly as possible.

I guess I should take a page from the Bobby Ferrin songbook and “don’t worry” and “be happy”, but it seems like we have 1001 projects to complete this summer, and so little time to do everything. Wish us luck, and if anyone has any good tips for surviving a library renovation, please do send them my way. I promise I’ll post some before and after pictures on my Flickr account.

The Rumors of the Death of Libraries have been Greatly Exaggerated

With apologies to Mark Twain, the rumors of the death of libraries have been greatly exaggerated, especially in the last week. Mark Shatzkin first predicted the death of libraries in a Globe and Mail interview this week with the statement “libraries make no sense in the future” and then followed it up on his blog yesterday stating “it will be hard to find a public library 15 years from now”. Pretty scary stuff for a librarian or library patron, no?

Except I have heard this argument again and again for the last 15 years. In fact, I suspect as libraries and librarians have faced every new technological change of the last century (microfilming, cheaper publishing methods, automation, the Internet) the same “libraries will be dead in 15 years” statement was uttered by someone. The facts prove otherwise. Libraries have weathered these changes, albeit as changed organizations, and have come out stronger because of them (for the most part).

Shatzkin attempts to tie the decline of bookstores to a decline in libraries, but to do so is comparing oranges and tangerines. Both are similar in the provision of books to the public, but libraries provide much more in terms of service, public space, and support. Bookstores are on the decline because of bad business decisions and a reliance on antiquated supply chain and distribution methods. In contrast, public libraries have been on the rise, in terms of usage and materials circulation, because even though technology seems to be pervasive in contemporary culture, the public needs spaces to collaborate, congregate, build knowledge, and synthesize information. These are the true raisons d’etre of public libraries, and anyone seeking to boil libraries down to simple book distribution is uninformed at best.

Public libraries will certainly change in the next 15 years, as they have the last couple of centuries. However, rumors of their demise are and always have been greatly exaggerated.

The Future of Academic Librarianship?

When I heard that Jeff Trzeciak would be coming to Penn State to talk about transforming libraries, I was excited to attend his presentation. Mr. Trzeciak is the University Librarian at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and  has over 20 years experience in academic libraries. Being a newer leader in academic libraries, having roughly the same experience in the profession as I have, a fellow “GenXer”, and a former Library Journal Mover and Shaker, I was interested to hear what he had to say about academic librarianship.

Mr. Trzeciak’s presentation “Transforming Traditional Organizations” provided many good talking points. He suggested that libraries must take risks and be creative and innovative, suggesting that we should take the role of “enthusiastic prospectors”. The presentation went on to highlight some great things going on at McMaster, and many of the ideas that he has tried there (consolidating reference desks, training staff to answer reference triage, getting librarians more “face time” with faculty) are all things that I have tried with great success both at Penn State and elsewhere. I even liked the idea of the library hiring postdoctoral fellows to work on research and collection development projects, especially in the digital humanities and special collections.

When Mr. Trzeciak turned his attention to future happenings in his library is where he lost me. He believes that librarians should not be in supervisory positions, and he doubted that any new librarians will be hired at McMaster in the near future. Instead he made the case for hiring non-MLS PhD-holding candidates to fill positions previously held by librarians. It is these points that I most vehemently disagree with, and I feel that Mr. Trzeciak is doing a disservice to the profession in advocating for this type of change.

MLS-educated librarians are the keepers of the profession. Librarians hold the training, vision, and vocation for this type of work. I do believe that the MLS curriculum can be “bulked up” and improved, and am making this a professional priority of mine in the upcoming years. Making the MLS degree program a full 2 years (48 credit hours) and requiring more courses in management, statistics, assessment, and leadership would be a great way to start. PhDs in fields other than library and information studies are not the right people to entrust with the keys of librarianship. Librarians, educated in an enhanced MLS curriculum are the right choice.

Mr. Trzeciak’s presentation not only touched a nerve with me but with others in the biblioblogosphere. Jenica Rogers and Amy Buckland have posted similarly on their blogs. And I concur. Not only are libraries important, but so are librarians. Ms. Rogers put it more eloquently than me:

Don’t let people like Jeff Trzeciak make you invisible.

Using Wikipedia in Libraries

I want to go on record as saying that I love Wikipedia. I’m a contributor and user of Wikipedia and often steer students and others to this valuable resource to answer quick reference questions or to get an overview on a topic, especially current events or popular culture. Does Wikipedia have issues? Sure, but then so does every other reference tool from the venerated Encyclopaedia Britannica to a pathfinder created to illustrate the finer points of a library’s collection. I would rather teach our students how to be proficient users of any information source than to prohibit them from using this popular and, often times, well-written and well-researched source.

Inside Higher Ed has a great article today about how the University of Houston is harnessing the power of Wikipedia to gain more exposure for their digital collections. This is a novel and excellent way to “partner” with Wikipedia to make Library collections and resources more readily and widely available. I would challenge my fellow librarians to look for other ways to “partner” with Wikipedia to make the resource better. Consider editing or creating a Wikipedia article. Look for ways to incorporate Wikipedia into library instruction or reference service. Or use Wikipedia to highlight collections and resources at your local library like the University of Houston has. Wikipedia is only as good as the people adding information to it and I feel that we librarians have a lot to add to the mix.