Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Evolution or Entropy?

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Evolution or Entropy?

Article excerpt

Changing Reference/User Culture and the Future of Reference Librarians

This article addresses issues that relate to the changing functional relationship between the reference librarian and the user, based on the observation that the advance of information technology, particularly the Internet, has altered the values, attitudes, and beliefs of library users, and, as a consequence, their microculture. Highlights include: the traditional reference desk; the changed reference environment, the creation of electronic reference services, and direct connections to information resources; user cultures; the convenience quotient (a measure of what type of user orientation is most comfortable within a given type of relationship and who regards the services provided as convenient); and components of reference service with regard to information resources.

where have you gone, Lloyd's of London? A recent article in The Economist stated that the famous and venerable firm of Lloyd's faces a fundamental, perhaps insoluble, problem: "electronic rivals doing what they do but faster and more cheaply; Lloyd's has to explain why what it does is worth doing at all."(l) The same question might be asked of reference librarians; why is what we do worth doing?

A little background. Culture can be defined as socially transmitted values, attitudes, and beliefs; microculture refers to a particular relationship pattern, while macroculture is the overall configuration of various micro patterns.(2) The advance of information technology, particularly the Internet, has altered the values, attitudes, and beliefs of contemporary library users and, as a consequence, the microculture of library users. These changes affect user valuations of reference services and call for a revised service model that will offer optimum services appropriate for the Information Age.

In order for any service (including reference service) to be provided effectively, it must relate to the needs and expectations of those who use it. There must be a reciprocal relationship between the values and attitudes of those who provide services and the values and attitudes of those who use the service. Without this, the relationship will cease to be reciprocally interactive. Calls for the reinvigoration of the role of reference librarians or assertions that reference librarians must be the keystone of future libraries, and the information environment, thus miss the point.(3) The only way that reference librarians can define their future role is to ascertain in what ways the reciprocal relationship between themselves and users is evolving.

The Traditional Reference Desk

In the past two years, a number of conferences have been organized to provide a forum where reference librarians could collectively search for an appropriate future role.(4) Generally, the consensus reached is that traditional reference services are here to stay, modified only by the use of improved tools. I argue instead that something has decisively altered in the user culture and that librarians must comprehend this changed culture and fundamentally transform their role to accord with it.

The traditional reference desk (and reference service) existed in an environment where information resources were highly concentrated and where the reference librarian was knowledgeable about the content, location, and accessibility of these resources. The relationship between the librarian and the user was hierarchical, with the reference librarian functioning as a gatekeeper to these resources. In these traditional libraries, users and reference librarians formed an important and stable microcultural relationship via the reference desk.

In the process of gaining information (by the user) or providing access to information resources (by the reference librarian), reference services had a clearly defined, major role in information provision. Individual users at their desktops had virtually no choices regarding metadata, information resources, or information access. …

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