The practice of reference work has been changing rapidly due to new information resources, emerging services, alternative ways of organizing work, and increased expectations of users. We review the literature in order to identify the competencies for reference work that have been pinpointed as necessary for today's work environment, and we present results of a study in which we explored the extent to which professional development of reference librarians was occurring in large public libraries in Ontario. We examine those competencies reference librarians were choosing to acquire through formal and informal professional development activities, and we explore barriers that might be preventing reference librarians from participating in these activities. Our discussion focuses on the meaning of the results for the professional development of librarians in the twenty-first century.
Reference librarians have been facing a decade of rapid change in the workplace: new information resources, emerging services, alternative ways of organizing work, and increased expectations of users. All these point to an urgent need to keep up-to-date the knowledge and skills for public service and reference work. In this article, we review the literature in order to identify the competencies for reference work that have been pin-pointed as necessary for today's work environment. We present results of a study in which we explored the extent to which professional development of reference librarians was occurring in large public libraries in Ontario. We examine those competencies reference librarians are choosing to acquire through formal and informal professional development activities, and we explore barriers that might be preventing reference librarians from participating in these activities. Our discussion focuses on the meaning of the results for the professional development of librarians in the twenty-first century.
Technological change, in the form of the development of the Internet and electronic resources, is changing the practice of reference work. The development of electronic resources has changed the volume, nature, and quality of the information sources available. Where reference librarians once relied solely on print resources, they can now answer the majority of questions accurately using only Web-based sources. (1)
However, there is evidence that traditional print resources still form the main source of answers to reference questions in public libraries. (2) Thus, there are concerns about the ability of the reference librarians to use Internet sources to answer reference questions.
Change is also occurring due to management practices. Organizational restructuring, increased use of paraprofessionals on the reference desk, and growth in part-time employment have resulted in changing roles for librarians. The knowledge and skills that librarians have acquired through formal education and on-the-job experience may no longer be relevant for jobs that have been redesigned.
The graying of the profession is also leading to concerns about whether librarians are keeping their knowledge and skills up-to-date. Librarians nearing retirement may be reluctant to invest time and money in professional development they will hardly use, and libraries may be reluctant to invest in training librarians who will soon retire. There is no overall picture of the amount of training and development undertaken by libraries and librarians. Studies of training in libraries have been descriptive for the most part. In one study, the average length of time that staff spent in training on new information technologies was only one or two days in total and the main method used to train library staff was informal coaching by co-workers. (3)
Libraries are adopting a competency approach to manage their human resources. Competencies are the knowledge, skills, and personal traits that enable the professional librarian to function effectively in the tasks considered essential in the profession. (4) Identifying competencies emphasizes the requisite qualifications in terms of a combination of knowledge, skills, and experience for successful performance of the job rather than the means by which the qualifications were obtained. Human resource managers use competencies in a variety of ways: as a hiring tool, to determine training and development needs, as performance standards, and even as a basis for compensation schemes.
Lists of competencies abound in the professional literature, but the profession has yet to come to a consensus about a single set of competencies. Competencies have been identified in terms of library function (acquisitions); client group served (young adults); subject specialization (law); place of work (special library); and specific skills (technology skills). (5)
Competencies for Reference Work
Only very recently has a list of professional competencies for reference and user services librarians been developed by the Reference and User Services Association of the American Library Association. (6) Competencies are defined as behaviors that distinguish excellent performers from average performers. They are grouped into broad categories of behaviors related to: access; knowledge base; marketing, awareness, informing; collaboration; and evaluation and assessment of resources and services. The list of competencies incorporates behavioral guidelines that focus on behaviors that are correlated with positive perceptions of reference performance. These behaviors include approachability, interest, listening, effective searching, and follow-up. (7)
Most writers agree that basic reference skills (how to conduct a reference interview and knowledge of reference sources and local collections) and subject knowledge are a must for reference work as well as communication and interpersonal skills and analytic and creative thinking skills. (8) Technological skills, management skills, and instructional skills are increasing in importance as well. (9)
In library schools, students are introduced to basic reference skills, but it has been suggested that it takes at least eight hours a week on the reference desk over a two-year period to become a minimally competent reference librarian. (10) The ability to conduct an appropriate reference interview and knowledge of sources in all formats were among the most highly rated competencies for work in public, academic, and special libraries. (11) As Nofsinger points out, reference librarians have become "information counselors, mediators between users and materials" in a complex information environment. (12)
Communication and interpersonal skills have always been necessary for successful reference work but are seen to be even more critical in today's automated environment. Even spelling skills are a prerequisite for successful information retrieval. (13) Public service librarians regularly prepare brochures, pathfinders, flyers, instructional guides, and articles for local newsletters. (14) Dealing with users in-person requires a complex set of communication skills while dealing with users by telephone, through e-mail, or via Internet Relay Chat (IRC) requires an additional set of skills. (15)
Analytic and creative thinking skills are becoming more important as the information environment becomes more complex. Skills in problem solving and critical thinking are necessary for information professionals, particularly for reference work. (16) Sherrer points out that traditional reference sources have been issued in new formats or replaced altogether by new sources, and it is not feasible to expect one person to have a thorough knowledge of the vast array of electronic sources available. (17) Successful reference librarians must be able to experiment, try new processes and search strategies, show initiative, and be collaborative. Reference work not only involves retrieval of relevant information, it also requires the evaluation of the information or documents retrieved. The critical evaluation of information retrieved from the Internet is an important role of the reference librarian. (18) Librarians …