No matter what you may hear, reference isn’t dead. It sure looks a whole lot different than it did ten, twenty or fifty years ago but I assure you it is alive and well. Next to material circulation, I believe reference help is the most popular library service. If you don’t believe me it’s because we may be operating under a different understanding of what “reference” actually means.
Reference is defined as the act of referring or consulting. With this definition, anything other than the transactional process of circulating materials would be reference. In an age of library as a brand, we’re selling ourselves short by clinging to a term that feels so outdated. For example, we don’t direct customers to our ILS or even OPAC, instead we show them the catalog. Our jargon has long moved on from serials or periodicals to magazines and newspapers. It’s time we officially let go of the term reference, but in no way, am I suggesting letting go of the service. Libraries across the country have been tackling this with brand new terms like Information Services, Library Services, or simply, Help Desk.
In these more nebulous terms we can incorporate readers advisory, research assistance, tech support, program referral, and assistance locating physical and digital materials. Many libraries are going a step further and combining their reference and circulation desks to create a more general Customer Service desk. Reference Help (or whatever you want to call it) should be obvious to find and easy to use. If possible, it should also be mobile.
And finally, staffing. While I don’t believe libraries should operate entirely like businesses, I do believe some business sense could do us good. If you think about the traditional reference department, with the multi volume reference material, databases with access to scholarly articles, and a full-time Master’s Degreed Librarian, you may realize it’s one of the more expensive departments in the library. If you then look the actual use of that department, the ROI is significantly low. With a refreshed idea of reference as Adult Services or Information Services, an opportunity opens up to include more library support staff in the mix. In a study conducted at the Deschutes Public Library System, staff tracked the type of questions being asked at the reference desk. The majority turned out to be “ready reference” with a close second going to “how to use.” These questions could easily be handled by a paraprofessional with the occasional reference question being referred to the librarian.
The truth is that I’m worried about our future. if we don’t face the reality that public library work has changed, and do our best to change along with it, we are also going to go the way of the reference department.