Is reference dead? Yes.
Can reference services still have an impact on the lives of users? Emphatically yes.
This was the message offered up to a double session room filled to capacity at the Public Library Association Conference in Philadelphia, delineating the difference between Big “R” reference and a more nimble and responsive vision of services anticipating 21st century user needs. The session was presented by Jason Kuhl and Richard Kong of the Arlington Heights Memorial Library (IL) with Celeste Choate of Ann Arbor District Library (MI).
“You’ll notice that none of us have reference in our title,” joked Kuhl, library operations director for Arlington Heights. During the long gap between session approval by PLA and the subsequent presentation, the library began a reorganization that blurred the lines around any kind of formal reference department, and also moved away from a position with the title information services manager. Illustrating the need that prompted their search for alternative approach to traditional reference services, Kuhl went through the familiar kinds of numbers used to document reference decline: the library had an 85% drop in reference transactions between 1999 (259,024 interactions) and 2008 (38,077); over three years of observation, 94% of the print reference collection was never touched by a librarian.
Kuhl described this failure to thrive, however, as not just a problem of marketing the library’s services. Arlington Heights tore down a wall to make the public services desk more visible, but while there was a 39% transaction increase as a result, greater success lies in a shift to content creation, Kuhl said, which helps libraries move past their more passive role as conduits for the consumption of information.
Kong, who is digital services manager, told the audience, “reference might be dead, but reference librarians are still kicking.”
He presented five opportunities to create new kinds of service:
- Build informational programming and classes around popular technology and information topics.
- Provide specialized niche reference in areas like business support. While there is vastly less need for general information help in this upper-middle class suburb of Chicago, Kong said, there are many entrepreneurs seeking the kind of high quality support the library can provide. In fact, the library was just named 2011 Arlington Heights Business of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce — “We help generate tax revenue by generating small business,” Kuhl said.
- Think local — Kong suggested that engaging with local users on social media and creating community-specific comment boards are the kinds of initiatives that make reference services prominent as part of the public face of the library.
- Enable users to lead more fulfilled lives — here, Kong suggested creating whole tracks of programming available to users, in broad but appealing topic areas. In technology, for example, the library offers tracks such as the traditional Computers 101 courses, but also working life, digital life, creative life, and an informed life.
- Consider libraries as kitchens, not grocery stores — quoting consultant Joan Frye Williams, Kong emphasized the potential for libraries to be a generative community resource, rather than something more like a warehouse. The new digital media lab in Arlington Heights, for example, gives users access to more media creation and editing technology than is available anywhere else in the community.
Choate, associate director of services, collections and access in Ann Arbor, concluded the session describing how her library has shifted collections, attitudes, and staff.
Recognizing that the questions coming to the reference desk rarely required a masters degree of other expertise, Ann Arbor has moved to a model that hires Information Desk Clerks who field the initial queries, answering if possible or directing elsewhere when necessary.
Likewise, Choate described a back-channel chat service that all staff has access to, including both librarians and IT and productions staff. Virtual reference questions are routed to this tool as are IT queries about things like printer maitenance, while questions are fielded by library staffers as appropriate.
The library also maintains a services wiki and a staff training portal available to everyone, describing the processes and procedures of handling questions coming in from the public.
Before tackling changes like these, however, Kuhn recommended during the Q&A following the session that staff need to be consulted individually and collectively as the discussion, and that he’s found sharing statistics as broadly as possible has accelerated staff buy-in.