I admit that the Geeks are the Future article in Library Journal got me a bit fired up. I admit that I know getting fired up is the purpose of such presentations. I also admit that I have heard the same comment repeated by so-called knowledge makers, so it is hardly revolutionary. But this refrain hit home today because it helped to clarify my own thinking about the subject. Is reference dead? Well, in many ways it depends on your definitions.
An underlying assumption of The “Reference is Dead” view is that reference librarians are sitting patiently at a desk waiting for people to come and ask random questions about the seven dwarfs or ten reindeer or whatever other useless figure was mentioned in the movie Desk Set. Or even, what is the population of Mexico? I mean, really. I even google the population of Mexico instead of going to the library’s website. That is not reference. Maybe it was ten years ago, but it isn’t anymore.
Let’s try this. How about reference involves teaching both one shot and for-credit classes (sometimes even content classes! shocker!), creating online materials, sitting in curriculum committee meetings, consulting with students in your office, virtually, and in the coffee shop, and doing a hundred other things? Real reference involves answering questions like, “Can you help me figure out what this professor means by operational definitions?” Some librarians might say “No, that is not my job,” but considering I know the answer to this question it would be rude not to help a student think through her problem (without giving her the answer). Can a database or a tutorial do that? It can give her definitions, but she had definitions. What she needed was context and that was what I, a reference librarian, could give her. What she needed was a teacher not an automaton.
Second, whether or not Neiburger intends it, these blanket proclamations are sometimes used to make statements about necessary changes at all types of libraries. I do not pretend to understand what goes on in a public library and I do not know what kinds of questions patrons are asking in a public library. My library, however, is not a public library. Our library is used heavily by many different types of patrons (including community members who dislike the public library for whatever reason). In an era of budget cuts, I find it troubling that a librarian would proclaim the end of reference and not even be bothered to qualify that statement in a meaningful manner. Thank you, Eli Neiburger, for giving potential fuel to a General Assembly bent on gutting education. If they decide to go after our academic libraries specifically, I’ll know where to place the blame.
Furthermore, who are these “patrons” to whom he refers? In the academic library, we aim to be mindful about the differences in our patrons — undergraduates in political science, graduates in nursing, faculty in business administration. There is no one patron. There are many types of patrons who all use the library in different ways. The question we need to be asking is why do they use the library so differently? What insights to they bring to the research process from the beginning? What kind of personal assistance do they need? What expectations do they have about the library, its resources, and its services?
If you don’t address those questions, how can you even begin to make decisions about where your IT resources should go? And even when you know the answers to these questions, you need public services people who will market what the geeks have created. Some geeks are fabulous marketers. But I don’t expect they will have the time, in addition to managing servers and building tools, to go out and make the connections necessary to get those tools used. “If you build it they will come” is not a mantra for any institution’s survival.
Which brings me to a dilemma. Since becoming a librarian I have been subjected to two ideas over and over again. 1) Patrons want to be able to “google” it, and 2) Millennials want their professors (and everyone else) to know their names and what makes them super special. So, here’s my dilemma. In creating online tools, how do we create an experience that is truly personal? Yes, Flickr may say “Bok Lynda” when I log in, but I (most of the time) realize that it isn’t a person interacting with me (and I only rarely say “Bok” back). Will a database or an online tutorial know the needs of my students in the residential college as well as I can? Maybe someday, but not now. And in putting all of our resources to create truly personal library tools are we really saving money? I can assure you (and our wonderful General Assembly) that I cost a whole lot less than an IT admin and server space. Even if you don’t see my logic, you have to admit the tension exists. Our youngest users (according to the illustrious literature) want educators to know their names and who they are. And, yes Virginia, I am an educator.
When it comes down to it, I like people. I like working with, interacting with, and learning with people. I expect the library to be about people too. Surveys, usability tests, and other standardized techniques are critical for understanding users. Ultimately, however, they aren’t going to do us any good if we aren’t engaging in a more fundamental act of data gathering — interaction. And that word alone, if anything, is what reference is all about.