Notes of a Binge Thinker

Thoughts from NTLP's Executive Director

Reference, do we keep it?

Happy February!

I hope everyone has a wonderful Valentine’s Day.  My wife and I will be celebrating our 12th one together at the upcoming Supporter’s Conference.  This one-of-a-kind event will start Friday night,  Feb. 12th and extend into Saturday, Feb. 13th.  I am looking forward to spending some quality time with my wife, who I still love as much now as I did when we first celebrated Valentine’s Day together.  For more information on the conference, please go to

This month, our website’s theme is Supporting Your Support Staff.  Our podcast this month features Caroline Morrow, Circulation Clerk at the Flower Mound Public Library on some of the ways the library management shows appreciation and provides a supportive environment for the staff.  Our featured article is written by Steve Standefer, Director of the Mansfield Public Library, on supervisory techniques that help create a healthy, happy library staff organization

For my identity crisis series, I focused on the following question:  Reference, do we keep it?

I sent some questions to my favorite listservs and received some great responses.  Most responses stated that reference did have a future in libraries, but it was going to be a very different one.  Almost all the responses stated the same basic feeling about the future of reference, that it will be available in some shape or form.

“There is a future.  It’s just a different future.  Reference staff may lose most of their role searching for and doling out quick facts.  It opens an opportunity to offer more in depth reference service because the librarian’s time will not need to be spread so thinly.  Our facilities and staffing will need to reflect this shift.” Steve Benson, Richardson Public Library director, wrote in an email.

One question I asked was what the future held for the role of the librarian as the “information expert.”  Joan L. Sveinsson, Director of The Colony Public Library, wrote in reply to this question that she is “not sure that our customers ever really thought of us as ‘information experts’ — I think they saw us as knowledgeable guides and helpers to assist them in their search for information and materials — with varying degrees of appreciation.  Some still want that personal guide; others come to us as a last resort when they cannot find what they need/want (and I don’t think that is new or different!).”   Joan went on to write that she felt strongly, like Steve, that reference will need to evolve to provide more in-depth answers to those not able to find what they need through Google.  She also mentioned the role of the library as an educator and place for local information.

One interesting point that several librarians made to me was that most patrons will not pay the high costs of the reference sources provided by libraries.  If the patrons cannot find the material anywhere else, they will still need to go to a library to find the information, because the library is the only institution in the community that will have the funds available to provide the database/reference book.  It levels the playing field for so many community members who would be denied the information otherwise.

What about the future skill sets of librarians providing reference?  Steve stated it very nicely in his email.  “Librarians need to become more skilled in their roles.  It will no longer be adequate to respond to reference questions with simple, almost directional type answers.  The public can get a simple, satisfying answer by themselves.  We need to go beyond simple familiarity with information resources such as databases and be true experts in selecting, using, and instructing.  Librarians need to create special value in our responses to questions or the public will stop asking.  This returns to the concept of offering opportunity for in-depth services – consultation, assistance in output preparation (reports, plans, etc).  Show our value in information services and we remain relevant and useful.”

Of course, there are some librarians who feel strongly about the traditional reference role.  “Well, for starters, I still want to encourage patrons, both young and old, to look in a book, to read through the book. Second, teachers and professors still require students to site materials from books; they can’t all just use online materials.  In short, my vote is to keep the reference section. I’m certainly not against technology; I happen to love it. However, I’m not so quick to throw out all the books and turn my library into a technological library like something from Star Wars (to which I am also a huge fan). I still vote yes for books!”  Stacey Rogers, director of the Justin Community Library, wrote to me.

To be honest, I was surprised by how many individuals thought reference would still be a part of the library in this decade.  I certainly do not.  At least not in its current form of having a reference desk staffed with individuals to answer patron’s information requests.  I am also not sold on the idea that libraries will be able to provide advanced reference services.  In my opinion, most people do not realize that the information available on the Internet is not the best, and even if they did, most would settle for “good enough” versus best available.  Only a select few would realize the value that a trained information professional can provide to a community.

Instead, I firmly believe that a library has a role as information literacy provider.  Libraries need to focus on teaching people what is credible, worthy information versus so much of the trash you can find online today.  People need to be taught how to overcome the information overload and find good relevant information.  This I believe is where reference is headed.

Next month, I will be looking at the library’s role as the great equalizer.  Is this a library’s greatest value in a community?

Read the rest of my column here.


Written by amwlkaw

February 2, 2010 at 4:34 pm

Posted in Misc

3 Responses

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  1. The Binge Thinker is an inspiration to spouses everywhere! Husbands and wives take notice and do something very special you know your significant other would LOOOOVE! Happy Valentine’s Day 🙂

    oh yea, reference, yes, it’s a keeper!


    February 2, 2010 at 4:43 pm

  2. […] This post is in response to a Notes of a Binge Thinker blog post by Adam Wright titled Reference, do we keep it? […]

  3. My response is a bit long, so it is on my blog. The Future at the Library Reference Desk.

    Paul Waak

    February 19, 2010 at 5:55 pm

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