Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Thinking out Loud: Who Will Give Reference Service in the Digital Environment?

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Thinking out Loud: Who Will Give Reference Service in the Digital Environment?

Article excerpt

By the time you read this piece, the Library of Congress will have had its open meeting at ALA Midwinter (January 11, 1998, in New Orleans) to hear what people on the front lines are thinking about the future of reference. What LC learns from that meeting will be the basis for another meeting in late June of this year that will flesh out the issues and begin the process of trying to solve those that require a national effort. LC has identified some themes that will set the contexts for discussion at the Midwinter open session:

Staff Skills and Training. What new skills do we need and how do we achieve them? How do new developments in technology, education (e.g., distance learning), architecture, publishing, and so on affect the skills and responsibilities of reference librarians today?

On-site and Remote Users. What sort of reference service should be available to the on-site and the remote user? Will reference librarians need to compete with Internet answering services? Will libraries continue to have a role in ensuring the quality of reference service to researchers who may not be on-site in a library building? Should we be taking better advantage of interactive communications technology, such as chat and e-mail, to provide service?

Mixing the Electronic and Paper Worlds. How can we better integrate old and new resources in the reference transaction? How can we address the likelihood that users of handy digital resources will ignore superior physical resources on library shelves?

Policies. What policies need to be implemented to ensure the ability of the reference staff to provide quality service to all and priority service to a library's primary clientele while also providing services to other remote researchers?

Models. Are there models of cooperative service that we can apply to the library environment? Should libraries of different types, and librarians far away from each other and with different skills, work together to ensure that researchers can fulfill their needs in a digital age? Can several reference departments working together provide better service than each one can provide separately? Is there a special role for the national and state libraries in promoting cooperative services?

I've had a hand in planning the LC meeting, but as of this writing it hasn't yet taken place, so this can't be a report about the meeting.[1] Instead, I would like to use this space to air my personal concerns about the future of reference. I think library reference service is in trouble. Sometimes I think all of librarianship is in trouble, but we can explore that another time. My strategy is this: if my concerns have already been raised in the New Orleans meeting, these words should serve to reinforce what was said there; but if these concerns were overlooked, they at least are not buried. Either way, if enough people agree, better minds than mine will figure out how to get us out of trouble.

Change Driven by Technology

Over the last several years, I have visited many libraries, and I have had the chance to see how they're changing amid the revolution in information technology. They are changing, yes, but slowly, I feel. This is to be expected, given the size of library organizations, the age and sluggishness of their parent institutions (city governments, universities, etc.), and major shifts in their funding sources. At least they are moving in the right direction--mostly.

Electronic resources--particularly Internet resources--are different from any other type of material we've worked with, and in places where our users are becoming comfortable in the digital world, we're having to rethink the relationship between the materials we put on the shelves and those we provide access to in electronic form. So in libraries where staff are still doing their own collection development, they are trying to figure out how to select without owning digitized resources for their local users; and where they haven't completely outsourced cataloging, they're trying to figure out how to make those unowned digitized resources accessible. …

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