Sunday, 15 July 2007

Reference - hard times or a rethink?

I have always given a lot of thought to reference in the academic library where I work. I used to walk past the reference desk, say hello to the reference librarians, walk over to the reference collection and count the number of users, and then walk back and say "Only one, I'm afraid", or whatever number was appropriate. When we abolished the reference desk, that was no longer possible, and there was a hiatus in these counts of reference collection users. Or an hiatus, for the purists.

Now, as I walk down the stairs I see the print reference collection every day, in its new location on level 3 - a prime position, although not the prime position. I always count the number of users, and the tally is always the same.

Reference collections have always been under-used, like any other just-in-case collection. They have also, unlike many other categories of printed books, been particularly well-suited to online deployment, where they can be continuously updated, linked to additional information, and made instananeously available. As a result, much reference material has moved online in a pretty dramatic way. Reference books which have not done so are starting to look rather quaint.

I thought these thoughts again while leafing through the book reviews in the latest issue of the Australian library journal, which include several reviews of books about reference. Reference, in academic libraries, is still around. But now, because of the move away from print, a significant part of the work of libraries has been providing systematic access to this mass of information. Michelle McLean's review entitled Reference Reference seems to say that this is what reference is now about. Interestingly, MIT has made available its virtual reference collection online - but parts of it are behind a licence wall. The MIT collection unaccountably omits some new reference favourites, like the Wikipedia and Google Earth.

I have not canvassed the varied and changing meanings of the term "reference", which a blog in part about words should have done. And I have not examined the phenomenon of differing evolution of the idea of reference in different kinds of libraries - it is hard to know what meaning to give the word in an academic library, while traditional reference seems alive and well in public and state libraries.

But I could be wrong, as always. What is the future of reference? Is it (or is this just a monetised site)? Has Google got it under control? Or Can libraries add value in other ways than just paying for access to information for our users? Should we be collaborating in doing this? How?

Let me know what you think.


Bec said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bec said...

Hi Derek
As a new library graduate, I can safely say the principle of reference is still taught at library school, but teachings on the nature of the information resources that should be used to answer reference questions is deliberately vague.

It is undeniable that reference has changed, and needs to continue to change, in order to stay in touch with the increasingly online information-seeking behaviour of our users. One of the perceived problems for librarians with the future of reference services is that few users actually visit the library in person, and it is extremely difficult to conduct a reference interview over the phone or via SMS/email.

Many libraries (particularly in the US) have exchanged the traditional physical consultation desk for 'Web 2.0' technologies such as Second Life (an Australian example at Murdoch Uni; and Facebook. Online social bookmarking software such as is used in both academic and public libraries to provide quick access to ready reference sites like Wikipedia.

The term 'virtual reference' has also brought IM into the picture; the NLA supports a cross-time zone online reference service (Ask Now:, and several US libraries use Twitter or Meebo to attempt to replicate the traditional reference interview (see City of Casa Grande Public Library

Some of these methods might not be the ideal future for many libraries, or indeed the direction any libraries should be heading. The criminal activities and increasing commercialism in Second Life are not something we would willingly endorse.

However, experimenting with virtual reference services is a wonderful idea as long as we remember to maintain the most important aspect of reference service: contact between users and librarians.