Reference Librarians and Keeping Up-to-Date: A Question of Priorities

By Auster, Ethel; Chan, Donna C. | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Reference Librarians and Keeping Up-to-Date: A Question of Priorities


Auster, Ethel, Chan, Donna C., Reference & User Services Quarterly


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.

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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. …

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