Academic journal article Library Philosophy and Practice

Societal Transformation and Reference Services in the Academic Library: Theoretical Foundations for Re-Envisioning Reference

Academic journal article Library Philosophy and Practice

Societal Transformation and Reference Services in the Academic Library: Theoretical Foundations for Re-Envisioning Reference

Article excerpt

Introduction

The death of reference has been predicted for a number of years. While library reference service is far from dead, the decline in the number of reference questions is startling. The number of queries in libraries as a whole continues to fall: transactions have declined by 48 percent since 1991 (Kyrillidou and Young 9). In addition, students consistently rank personal attention last out of the 22 core library issues in LibQUAL surveys, coming in just behind instilling confidence in library users (Thompson, Cook, and Kyrillidou). A Pew Internet and American Life survey supports this data, showing that teenagers (whether correctly or incorrectly) already feel confident in their online search skills and thus do not see the need for our services (Fallows). These low-ranking services are associated with reference and instruction, although many other library departments also interact with the public. Personal attention is at the very heart of the reference interview, and the goal of information literacy is to create confident information consumers. To reverse the decline in use of reference services, academic reference librarians must transform their approach.

Many libraries have tackled change in reference services by examining generational differences and technological advances. Millennials (or Generation Y or the Net Generation) have been targeted for surveys, focus groups, and observation in many library studies (Gardner and Eng; Holliday and Li; Breeding; Thomas and McDonald). Librarians have tweaked and prodded technologies to see if they can produce more effective reference service and generate more reference traffic. If librarians are to generate a true reference revolution, however, they must consider transformation that is broader than generational differences or technological advances. Dismissing downward-spiraling reference trends as merely generational effects is irresponsible. Discussion about generational change too often encourages a dismissive, "those kids" mentality. While there are undoubtedly generational issues facing the library, this article highlights opportunities afforded by a more significant change that extends beyond generational issues. Technological change is also important, but technology alone does not hold the solution to increasing use of our services, and reference librarians are not traditionally systems experts. Reference departments often have neither the skill nor the responsibility to make immediate, large-scale technological improvements. Instead of focusing primarily on generational and technological issues, we need to examine the heightened importance of information, the increased demand for online information, and the shifting perceptions of our patrons in a context that takes a much broader view than generational differences or technological advances.

New ideas and experiments in reference services should be based on theories that describe our patrons and their environment. Societal transformation has more immediate relevance to reference services than technological advancement. Serving people is the core mission of the reference department. Theories of societal transformation--specifically information society theory and postmodernism--clarify the changing nature of information and examine the society and culture of the people we serve in academic libraries.

Together, information society theory and postmodernism offer insight about our patrons and provide a theoretical foundation for re-envisioning reference services. Simply put, the information society is a society completely transformed by information and information technologies. Information society theory goes beyond technological advancements and postulates a world that uses and creates information in profound new ways. In one sense, information becomes ubiquitous, but information also becomes commodified and, for those who control it, a source of power. Postmodernism is the cultural landscape of the information society. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.