Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

A Thirty-Year Reflection on the Value of Reference

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

A Thirty-Year Reflection on the Value of Reference

Article excerpt

As RUSA is exploring how, if at all, the word "reference" succeeds in describing what its members do in the twenty-firstcentury library, it seemed an opportune moment to publish David Murray's column reflecting on reference services. I hope that this column will help us to continue the discussion of how best to describe, in a usable fashion, the complex work that public service librarians are engaged in. I would be eager to feature the work of other writers who would like to contribute to this discussion, and encourage anyone interested in writing on this topic to contact me at btrott@wrl.org. We all agree, I believe, that our work is important to our users, and the challenge is in finding a way to recognize the changes that have happened in that work without abandoning the strengths that brought us to this point. I believe that David's column is a good start to that discussion.--Editor

I wrote this article in defense of reference services, broadly defined as "all the functions performed by a trained librarian ... to meet the information needs of patrons." (1) Actions associated with these functions include advising, answering, finding, evaluating, interpreting, instructing, and promoting, among others. I am not concerned with squabbles about models employed to meet users' information needs (e.g., Should we abandon the reference desk?); implications of the corporatization of higher education for the delivery of reference services (e.g., Can we afford them?); (2) or with zero-sum games that pit traditional services against newer ones (e.g., Must we scale back reference to support digital scholarship?). Inescapable questions all, but I wish to focus instead on the value of reference disconnected from these debates. More to the point, what would library users lose if reference services disappeared? I begin by looking backward nearly thirty years into the first chapter of my own library career to reflect on how far we have come, but more importantly to disambiguate the mutable models and tools of reference from its immutable value. I then identify two pillars of reference work unlikely to disappear no matter how much or how rapidly libraries transform. In the final section I respond to the authors of a recently published ARL report that reframed reference services as librarian-centered rather than user-centered.

In 1987, still in college and knowing very little about libraries, I applied for a part-time job paging books at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLPgh). After three months and hundreds of trips up and down eleven flights of Edwardian-era stacks, I landed my second library job: A full-time paraprofessional position in the Telephone Ready Reference Unit (or TRRU). (3) Over the next six years I honed my reference skills, gaining experience and knowledge that even now redound to the benefit of my patrons. In TRRU, a five-minute countdown began each time the telephone rang. If a patron's question could not be answered quickly it was transferred to a degreed reference librarian in the relevant subject department. The more disagreeable TRRU questions ranged from deadly serious to salacious. One patron I vividly recall requested the number of the nearest domestic abuse shelter. Bar bets abounded. I often hoped my proffered answer would please the tipsy, querulous patron on the other end of the line. It did not always end smoothly. Who, after all, enjoys losing a bet? Fortunately, my senior coworkers and librarian mentors trained me well. Sources consisted of a collection of several dozen classic reference books such as Lois Hutchinson's Standard Handbook for Secretaries, a lifesaver for grammar questions. Also available were the paper catalog and an index file of three-by-five cards with thenhandy tidbits such as the spellings of glasnost and perestroika. The index file I relied upon as an oracle of ephemera not otherwise retrievable. These were our tools; the bread and butter of a busy service point referred to by one patron as the "truth squad. …

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.