Finger on the Pulse: Librarians Describe Evolving Reference Practice in an Increasingly Digital World

Article excerpt

This exploratory study was designed to produce a preliminary sense of reference librarians' experiences in adapting reference practice to the digital environment, to relay their descriptions of their own views about what is special or unique about digital reference, and to contemplate the implications of those views. We wanted to know how digital reference services were started in their libraries and if these librarians have shared similar or common experiences in inception, development, and implementation. We also sought to identify how traditional reference practice and concepts fit into and determine new practice in reference and conceptions around it. Finally, we sought to develop the framework and outline for a larger-scale investigation of librarians' experiences with these changes. Findings describe a wide variety of experiences and include discussion around service character and policy, the digital reference interview, and future directions for reference practice. In conclusion, future research is proposed and unanswered questions are outlined. It is our hope that in the stories of these librarians we will uncover clues to better understand, conceptualize, and articulate what reference is becoming in the digital world and to help the profession of reference librarianship better prepare for what lies ahead.

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In the past decade, reference librarians have experienced a dramatic shift in their profession as resources and information exchange move increasingly into digital formats and space. First we grappled with the most immediate question around digital reference: "what to do and how to do it?" (1) Soon after, we witnessed the success of Internet reference services and reports that digital reference services were on the rise in both academic and public library settings. (2) More recently we've seen expert information services proliferate on the Web, alongside real-time library reference services and extensive collaborative projects. (3) By now it is common knowledge that library patrons are seeking out and finding innovative ways to ask their questions, and get them answered, via the Internet. In turn, librarians are experiencing innovative ways of interacting with their patrons, locating resources, and publicizing their services in the same space. For many practicing reference librarians, we just know that reference has a new face and that this face has evolved in the increasingly digital, and ever dynamic, world of information exchange.

Researchers have reported somewhat cautiously both the positive and negative effects of these trends on university reference librarians. Generally these findings indicate a growing need for user instruction due to "substandard computer skills" and a fear that the reference librarian is more technical support than information resource. (4) What may be somewhat lost in this still-developing area of inquiry are additional stories of librarians actually living out the challenges of this change. What are librarians doing and trying in their efforts to adapt their practices to a completely novel framework of time and space? How are librarians currently adapting their traditional training in reference practice to a virtual work and service space?

This exploratory study was designed to produce a preliminary sense of reference librarians' experiences in adapting reference practice to the digital environment, to relay their descriptions of their own views about what is special or unique about digital reference, and to contemplate the implications of those views. We wanted to know how digital reference services were started in their libraries and if these librarians have shared similar or common experiences in inception, development, and implementation. We also sought to identify how traditional reference practice and concepts fit into and determine new practice in reference and conceptions around it. Finally, we sought to develop the framework and outline for a larger-scale investigation of librarians' experiences with these changes. …