Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Trends in Reference and Public Services Librarianship and the Role of RUSA: Part One

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Trends in Reference and Public Services Librarianship and the Role of RUSA: Part One

Article excerpt

In December 2004 and May 2005, I served as a guest lecturer for graduate students enrolled in LIS504: Reference and Information Services, a virtual course on basic reference offered by the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. It was an honor to have the opportunity to interact with students enrolled in a course not only offered by my alma mater, but also taught by my former advisor, Dr. Linda C. Smith. Since this engagement gave me cause to reflect on more than twenty years of professional practice and active participation in RUSA, I thought it would also be an ideal topic for this column.

In Part One, I will explore some recent trends in reference and public services librarianship. In the next issue of RUSQ I will continue with a discussion of the factors driving change, strategies for predicting future trends, and the role of RUSA. My comments are based on my own observations as a business librarian at Penn State University's main campus, anecdotal evidence from academic and public library colleagues across the country, and findings from the professional literature. In particular, I want to thank Sally Kalin, the associate dean at my institution, for her willingness to share information about trends reported by the directors of public services at large research libraries. This group holds a discussion at each ALA Midwinter Meeting and Annual Conference.

Patterns in Reference Queries

What do we know about reference patterns? Statistics from the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) indicate a downward trend in reference questions for large-to-medium-sized academic libraries. The most recent ARL statistics indicate that reference transactions began to decline in 1998 and have decreased every subsequent year. (1) This report notes, however, that while the number of reference transactions has fallen, "the overall numbers are still substantial, with 93,036 questions per year for the median ARL library." (2) Public libraries have also reported a decline in reference transactions. Data from the 2004 Hennen's American Public Library Ratings (HAPLR) indicate, "In recent years, reported reference use has been declining, as electronic-resource use has soared." (3)

It is important, however, to note that there is evidence that the nature of reference queries has changed. The analysis accompanying the ARL statistics indicates that reference transactions require more time and are more complex, and that reference activity is shifting from the desk to one-on-one consultation with subject specialists. This mirrors reference patterns in the business library in which I work. My colleagues and I have experienced increases in e-mail and phone reference. We also have more patrons stopping by to consult with a librarian. These patrons are bypassing our reference desk. As a result, we spend considerable more time doing reference "off desk."

Academic librarians at other institutions have also anecdotally reported that more patrons are using their services. In some cases, the increase in demand for services is linked to physical improvements, such as building renovations. Other librarians have theorized that the millennials (a term coined by marketers for consumers born between 1982 and 2001) are more success-driven than the previous generation and that they value expert help. Others attribute increased queries to the complexity of electronic resources. Patrons do not know where to begin, given the vast number of databases available. Additionally, the volume of free Web resources has become overwhelming and users need help differentiating results. While patrons increasingly use the Web to find easy answers, they still seek out a librarian when they are stuck.

Implications for Staffing

Changing reference patterns have implications for staffing. However, there is no consensus about how to staff reference services. Since there is not a single solution, libraries are experimenting with many models. …

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