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.


10 thoughts on “Is reference service dead?

  1. I think the problem becomes circular. Patrons get bad service from an unqualified worker at a service desk, so they stop asking difficult questions at the desk, so the reference statistics go down, showing that only directional questions are being asked, so we staff the desk with unqualified workers since you don’t need trained professionals to answer directional questions, etc, etc.

    • Yes, this “downward spiral” can happen in any service-oriented field. This is why we need to be “ahead of the curve” and thinking of new ways to provide useful services that our patrons need. We cannot be Google, but we can help our patrons navigate and synthesize the information they are receiving from Google and elsewhere. Librarians need to get out of the “providing information” business and into the business of assisting our patrons in discovery, creation of knowledge, and synthesis of information.

    • Janet, are you suggesting that a “qualified” worker (I take it that means a professional reference librarian) is incapable of delivering bad service, and that only “unqualified” workers (I guess that means support or paraprofessional staff) give the bad service in libraries? If you really believe that’s true, I think that rather insulting to our paraprofessional colleagues. And if the workers who are being asked to assist in the delivery of reference service are unqualified, then isn’t that the fault of the “trained professionals” for not developing a suitable program for making sure everyone providing reference service has gone through some sort of training to ensure they are reasonably qualified to assist the user community.

  2. Neiburger isn’t even a real librarian. Of course he doesn’t want to hire more MLIS librarians, since he isn’t one himself.

  3. I think the database publshers have created product which are easy to use, thus students do not need assistance from reference librarians. At the beginning of the semester students are not asking questions about textbooks. I guess they all know the library does not carry required textbooks. Let’s face it, reference is dead.

    • If you think that undergrad students no longer need reference and research assistance because of “easy to use” databases, you obviously have not been to an academic library recently. Do librarians answer less factual easy-to-answer questions? Yes, but we also have seen a rise in one-on-one sessions with students providing in-depth help in research methods, writing papers, and locating information. Reference is not dead, it just has become something much more useful for students and librarians alike.

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