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The Future of Reference in Special Libraries Is What Information Pros Can Make It; If We Sit and Do Nothing, We'll Be like the Frog in the Pot: We Won't Know We're Cooked until It's Too Late to Jump

By Abram, Stephen | Information Outlook, October 2007 | Go to article overview

The Future of Reference in Special Libraries Is What Information Pros Can Make It; If We Sit and Do Nothing, We'll Be like the Frog in the Pot: We Won't Know We're Cooked until It's Too Late to Jump


Abram, Stephen, Information Outlook


Many years ago, the esteemed Barbara Quint offered her estimate that Google answered as many reference queries in a half-hour as all the reference librarians in the world did in seven years.

I suspect that ratio is quite different now, and not for the better! From that insight, I was aware that reference had to be the place to watch for change and innovation in libraries. That's a major shift.

Please be clear that I differentiate reference questions from the deeper research support that is our stock in trade. Reference questions usually result in answers that are mere facts, the ones that answer the questions that start with who, what, where, or when. Research support--and dare I say the more important questions--starts with how or why. The search engine folks do find it much easier to deal with the reference end of the continuum while we library types excel at the research end--with our personal service, deeper interviews, and professional levels of metadata.

However, you can see that reference work is changing, and our core users don't always know when their question is simple or more complicated. In olden times, in the last century, we helped them determine this through the reference interview. How can we capture the high value questions when simple reference has moved to the Web?

Generally, our reference stats are down. This is not the case with our research requests, training activities, and one-on-one contact with clients. Intranet and Web site hits--from nearly any measurement data point--are way up. Are we getting the value we need or is the illusion of "good enough" answers taking over?

Reference and research services, the front lines of library service, are dealing with a less predictable future. The asynchronous, asymmetrical threats facing us are very real hydra monsters with many possible tangents, all of them having some truth. The fate of reference has come into clearer focus in the Web 2.0/Library 2.0 discussions, even debates. Either way, the tone has moved from understanding and learning the technology to one of understanding end-user behaviors in context. The tone has moved from serving libraries' management needs and the library workers' preferences to one where the end user's needs trump librarian's insights and personal search preferences.

A plethora of new ethnographic end-user research--from usability through personas, and from hit analyses to behavioral studies--has focused on workplace needs, scholarly behavior, learning styles and entertainment uses. It demonstrates a material shift in the library firmament.

After almost 20 years of working on the infrastructure of libraries--servers, intranets, Web sites, wireless, broadband, access, security, viruses, etc.--we have reached a tipping point. In 2007, we are seeing the real action in our world of libraries move from the back office to the front room. We're moving from a technology-centric strategy to one where the real needs of our clients must predominate. Aligning technology with user behaviors is no longer sufficient for success. We need to understand and understand deeply the role of the library in our end users' lives, work, research, and play. This is critical to our long-term success, and failure is not an option.

Bricks, Clicks, and Tricks

To capture market share, and more importantly end-user mindshare, we must now prioritize our long-term and short-term strategies on serving the real customer (and not just the internal needs of library workers). For instance the online public access catalog, or OPAC, doesn't suck for library workers. It was built to meet our specific needs. When we moved an internal tool to make it accessible to the "public," we did a good thing.

The unintended consequence of OPACs was that we learned, and have now acknowledged, that end users have different needs and processes for discovery and navigation than library workers.

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