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.
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.
I have recently been asked to participate in an online discussion with a group of library school students on the future of online reference services. Penn State currently offers online chat reference using software from VRLplus which has served us well for the past few years. VRLplus also provides for a “widget” that we embed on the library’s web site to allow patrons to interact with librarians without opening the full featured version of the chat reference software.
The students have raised good points about using social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter for reference service and providing reference services via SMS (text messaging). I am looking forward to more discussions and I feel that I am learning as much from them as they are from me.
So what are your thoughts about the future of online reference?