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Is “Traditional Reference” Dead?

I’ve been mulling over this question for the last couple of years, but I returned to it after reading these conference notes posted at A Wandering Eyre. (I know, I know, that was months ago. But I’ve been mulling, remember?) In particular, there were a couple of lines in those notes where “Jane” paraphrased Joe Janes and then added her own commentary in brackets.

Now there is a lot of stuff and people can find it or they can find something. There are lots of ways to get help. Traditional reference is not going to work. [Mr. Janes is exceptionally humorous, but he is right. Traditional reference is not going to serve the needs of our users.]

I wasn’t at that conference, and I’m not even directly responding to this passage. But this is a refrain I hear over and over among librarians, and every time I hear it, I think I must have missed something. I assume that “face to face” is implied by this form of reference, as well as “reference interview” and some form of question-resolving activity. And some form of these ingredients continues to make up a major portion of my work. Maybe the problem is that I’ve only been a reference librarian for almost 3 years. Maybe I never experienced this “traditional” form of my job that everyone thinks is breathing its last gasps.

But if we envision our service as one which helps students understand how to tackle questions and why tackling them in particular ways is might be important, is this “traditional” reference or something different? And if we notice growing numbers of students coming to us for this kind of help at the desk and in our offices, and if we’re hearing that students are coming to us because their professors or their roommates or their best friends suggested it, wouldn’t that mean that these services are, in fact, serving their needs?

The kinds of questions we get, and the way that students approach us leads me to believe that reference is not dead or even dying.* I think reference is alive and well just like the English language is alive and well. It isn’t bound by the same rules and expectations as it was once, and new rules have emerged over time, but that doesn’t mean that the basics have fundamentally shifted or become irrelevant. Rather than being gatekeepers of information, we’re now expert in weeding through too much information, but we’re still helping people fill their information needs. We’ve added new methods of communication over time (I imagine telephone reference was at one time regarded as new), but we’re still in the business of communicating with people to figure out what they need.

So if by “traditional reference” you mean “a service which requires people to approach a desk and ask a librarian a question, face to face, as their only method of posing a question, and a service which will respond to these questions by handing back factual answers,” then yes, I think that kind of service is has evolved and been subsumed into a much broader service. But it does not necessarily follow that desks, physical spaces, or even librarians are obsolete. These are just the tools, and only a subset of the tools available to us now; any tool can be put to good or bad use. The service that makes use of these tools is the key. And that service reinvents itself every time a new person presents us with a question, every time we work together to figure out how best to resolve the question, and every time present strategies and tips and, yes, even answers in a way that makes sense to for that question at that time in that context.


* Of course, it may just be that my particular circumstances and community keep reference a vital part of what I do. As students here have grown to rely on the other two prongs of our service (instruction and individual appointments), we’ve noticed that they bring more and more “long” questions to the reference desk. They’re perfectly able to find many of the answers to fact-based questions on their own (which is why our “short” question total has diminished over time), but they come to the desk for in-depth help, research strategy development, or just plain old help getting started in an unfamiliar research territory. I’ve also already talked about why our particular library benefits from a centralized location where a librarian can be found at predictable hours and how we supplement that service with our appointment model and with a low-key IM reference service. But these are outgrowths of our particular institution and our students’ culture, so I understand that generalization is difficult in practice, however wonderful in theory.

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  1. Steve Lawson Steve Lawson

    Great post. I assume that the residential liberal arts college environment where you and I work is a very important factor. I don’t know what our stats look like, but we are often quite busy at the desk, and students and faculty certainly expect to find us there.

    I’m interested in hearing more about experiments and developments in reference services, but I’m confident that *at my institution* people still want and need reference service, in person and at the desk (easy to find, predictably staffed).

  2. Megan Megan

    Amen Iris! Like Steve suggests, our settings probably factor into our shared experiences in this realm. Yesterday was the first day of classes for the spring term, and I was utterly SWAMPED from 10-1. On a Monday morning. With real, in-depth, substantive questions. Nope, “traditional reference” isn’t dead here.

  3. Iris Iris

    See, part of me thinks it can’t *just* be a function of the small residential college. But then, what do I know? This is all I’ve done since library school.

  4. mlorfeld mlorfeld

    From a non-librarian POV, I’d say yes and no. In undergrad I had very little reason, other than what I’d call busy work assignments that necessitated the use of the library. Remember I was a Computer Science major… so by the time things were published they already were dated materials.

    Now skip forward a decade, though I’m on a year hiatus from my academic institution, as a Masters of Divinity Student, the reference desk has been invaluable. Partly because the research I do is much different than I did before, but also in part because the level of research needed is much more intense.

    For a good majority of students (and this might be part of my distaste for “liberal arts” education), there’s not much of a need to spend much time in the library. It’s there in the rare case that you might need it. However for the group that has a use for it, it is of great value.

  5. Mark Mark

    Can I say “I told you so”? ;)

  6. Iris Iris

    Well, Matt (is it terrible of me that I still have trouble thinking of you as “Matt”?), I also remember arguing with you over the value of different languages when we were in college… ;-)

    Seriously, though, I think you hit one one key point that I’d overlooked: research areas make a difference. Our CS majors don’t use the library either, or not very much. Our history and poly-sci and biology students do, though, because their research areas require access to the kinds of things that are in our library.

    And Mark… Yes. You may. :-)

  7. mlorfeld mlorfeld

    Yeah yeah, not taking Greek (as my adviser suggested in order to help me with computer languages) ended up costing me a few thousand as I took summer Greek. I think my response in undergrad was, “why would I do that… it’s not like I’m going to the Sem or anything.”

    What does go along with the “research area” bit is that each field has their own areas in which to look for reference. Technological fields are heavily reliant on manuals, documentation, standards definitions (IEEE), and virtual networking communities. Where libraries may be helpful is providing someone with the expertise in mining the necessary data from these sources. Our alma mater didn’t provide this resource, or at least did not make known that this was available.

  8. Iris Iris

    Our alma mater’s library was hampered by a severe lack of funds. I never realized quite how much they did with so little until I worked their during library school.

    And… does this mean that all these years later, I finally won that argument?!? Huzzaaahhhh!!!!

  9. mlorfeld mlorfeld

    Yes (hangs head in humility)… funny how much one can change in 6 years.

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