Two events this past August prompted me to think more about reference services than I have for some time. The first was being interviewed by the editor-in-chief of Arugus, a journal published by the Corporation of Professional Librarians of Quebec. I was asked to respond to several questions about the future of reference services for a forthcoming thematic issue on this topic. The second event was a two-day Penn State University Libraries reference retreat, an in-house workshop attended by approximately eighty-five librarians and staff members (with additional virtual attendees). I am using this space as a forum to share what I learned from my innovative colleagues and the incomparable Marie Radford, the keynote speaker and workshop facilitator.
Radford, an associate professor in the Rutgers University School of Communication, Information and Library Studies, is well-known to many RUSQ readers. She is a leading researcher on the topic of interpersonal communication in face-to-face and virtual reference encounters. In addition to being a highly sought-after speaker, she has published widely on virtual reference. Our understanding of the latter will be greatly enriched by her ongoing study of virtual reference services. She is the co-principal investigator of "Seeking Synchronicity: Evaluating Virtual Reference Services from User, Non-User, and Librarian Perspectives," a study funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Readers wanting to track Radford and Lynn Silipigni Connaway's (the other principal investigator) progress on this important study may do so by visiting Radford's page. (1)
I was struck by one of the comments made by associate dean Sally Kalin in her message welcoming retreat participants. She notes a resurgence of interest in reference, reflected in part by large and enthusiastic audiences at reference-related programs at recent professional conferences. The standing-room-only crowd at the 2007 RUSA President's Program on the future of reference and user services certainly confirms this observation. (2) Kalin's hypothesis is that more libraries are recognizing that the provision of excellent public service is essential to the future of libraries. Regardless of how one feels about referring to patrons as customers, the delivery of quality reference service is good customer service.
Subsequent speakers described the current reference environment at Penn State University Libraries. Because our university is a highly complex, multisite institution, the reference climate varies considerably based on location. (3) At University Park, reference statistics have been flat for the past three years after a downward trend. Librarians are spending considerably less time on desk, relying more heavily on students and other part-time reference assistants to staff desks. However, during this same period, there has been a marked increase in instruction and liaison activities, resulting in more direct (that is, bypassing the reference desk) reference encounters between patrons and subject specialists. Some samples of reference questions answered by Penn State librarians provided evidence that librarians are, indeed, answering more complex questions. While ready reference transactions have decreased, users continue to turn to librarians when the Internet fails them. Penn State librarians also are making a concerted effort to connect to users by providing both roving reference inside the library and off-site reference assistance. In sum, personal contact with users seems to be increasing. At many locations outside University Park, librarians are very involved in the daily life of faculty and students. In general, students and part-time reference assistants are relied upon less frequently to provide reference service. Throughout the Penn State system, reference is being delivered face-to-face and virtually (using e-mail, instant messaging [IM], chat, Facebook, and Second …