“Use service concepts, principles and techniques that facilitate information access, relevance, and accuracy for individuals or groups of users.”
I just wanted to get that out of the way early.
It’s part of an ongoing debate in library science – what is the future of reference in the Age of Google? While it is true that once-routine questions are largely being outsourced to the search box, the personal interaction between librarian and patron remains one of the most important service concepts alive in the library. Part of what makes a library special, something different from a free bookstore, is the expertise of the professionals behind the counter, and their willingness to assist patrons in finding information in any format (not just books, and never products for sale). Few other institutions provide such a service.
Various aspects of library organization, management and outreach affect the service received by its patrons. A number of those concepts have been addressed in other competencies, such as providing an organized catalog for efficient information retrieval (Competency G), having effective library outreach and management (Comptency D), and providing a comprehensive, relevant collection of materials (Competency F). However, the aspect of library service most likely to be remembered by the patron, and the most likely to affect their future library use, is their personal interaction with the library staff. And the arena in which that interaction is the most influential remains, even in this technological day and age, Reference Services. This is particularly true in the Academic Library, where research remains a foremost activity, and mastering informational databases can require an experienced mentor, mentorship that the librarian can and should provide.
A Social Science
The librarian stereotype – mousy, shy, quiet – is at odds with reality. The role of librarian is, much like many other public service professions, social by nature. Any time a librarian is sitting at a public desk or roaming the open stacks he or she needs to be ready and willing to engage with users proactively. Nothing is worse than the taciturn, unresponsive reference librarian; users who encounter that reaction will not return, whether or not they still need help. Something emphasized repeatedly in LIBR-210, Reference and Information Services, is that body language and demeanor go a long way in ensuring patrons come away satisfied with a reference interaction.
I pride myself not just on my skills in accurate information retrieval and research but also my ability to successfully and pleasantly engage with the public. In fact, it is what I enjoy most in the profession. While emerging technologies make it far easier for researchers to find their own materials, I’ve still found that a focused but unhurried reference interview remains the best way to connect a user to the information they need. It also gives you a chance to help them learn the skills to deepen their own work. Rather than bemoan how Google is replacing reference, I see only the opportunity for professionals to help users navigate the constantly evolving minefield of online research. And the daily interactions with information-seekers keeps the workplace lively and interesting, even if it comes with a few characters.
The classroom lessons of LIBR-210 were informed by witnessing live reference performed at the Martin Luther King, Jr Library in San José (which serves as both the Main Branch of the San José Public Library and the academic library for San José State University). I observed reference librarians at King Library for two hours and summarized the experience in a class assignment; I saw both good and bad elements at play amongst the various reference interviews. I submit that assignment as the first evidence of my understanding of service concepts in a library setting.
While I learned from that first session of observation, my understanding of reference services increased exponentially from my practicum: performing extensive Reference hours during my internship at the University of San Francisco’s Gleeson Library. The hours spent behind the desk, answering in-depth research questions (plus a few about the printers) gave me the confidence, experience, and ability to help information seekers. I also learned the real key to reference isn’t answering someone’s question, but teaching them the tools to answer those questions themselves. I submit my Gleeson Library Internship Report as evidence of my practical experience in library service.
I would like to add that we are fortunate to now be working in an era with multiple avenues to provide reference services. Reference could not be more alive, in part because of the fantastic opportunities enabled by synchronous online communications such as IM/Chat and VOIP. I touched upon the advantages of chat reference services in a blog post for LIBR-246, Advanced Tools & Technology, and I link to that here as my final piece of evidence on this subject.
While research habits are changing along with emerging technologies, library patrons — particularly students and scholars — will continue to need research mentors ready to guide them on their path. With ever evolving tools comes the greater need for expertise, and that is the niche a librarian is uniquely poised to fulfill. Given the in-depth, focused nature of the reference interview, Reference Services remains at the heart of a valuable user experience at the library.
Exhibit I-1: Reference Shadow | Available upon request
Exhibit I-2: Internship Final Report | Available upon request
Exhibit I-3: There He Sat With An Answer For All (blog post on The Pinakes).