Friday, May 9, 2008

Round Table Discussion: What's Next for Reference?

Round Table Discussion: What's Next for Reference?

Facilitator: Donna Maturi, Head of Reference and Information Services, Peabody Institute Library, Danvers

Friday, May 9 1:45-3:00

The round table is something of an open forum. All in attendance gathered to discuss the status and future of reference. Is reference dead? How do we manage this new digital and physical space?

The first question was asked: Is anyone getting rid of their reference desk? One librarian commented on the increase of instruction at their public library, necessitating the reference desk as central to the instruction/learning experience.

One librarian said she was getting rid of the reference desk, or at least creating a roving reference desk since in her opinion it is no longer necessary to have a static reference desk. The librarian also stated that since the advent of wireless internet access, it is no longer necessary to work from a computer behind the desk.

Another librarian stated that her library was exploring information portals, similar to what is in place at Borders Book Stores. A colleague thought this was a good idea; it gives librarians an opportunity to take the retail approach of "Are you finding everything you need?"

Another librarian wondered if public libraries are making an effort to incorporate the reference desk into a computer lab type setting, since it sounds like the natural transition.

Donna asked if reference collections are growing, if there is a budget freeze, or if the collection is not growing from a lack of ready-reference questions. This begs another question about assessment, which has become a touchy issue, especially at academic libraries. Assessment at the academic level has budgetary implications, both for staffing and collections.

There was some discussion about the role of the full-time reference librarian. Does a reference librarian have to take on other duties as part of their job because of the diminishing use of reference services? Many positions are described as reference and another position, i.e., reference/YA librarian, or reference/ILL librarian. Is this problematic for the future of reference services?

The question quickly changed to an argument for preserving reference services as a necessary part of library operations, especially with a focus on quality against the proliferation of quantity based information available on Google.

Librarians discussed ways to attract patrons by doing some kind of database show-and-tell, or as part of general library celebrations. There is some concern about learning new databases and marketing them to the public, especially with the cost for a small public library; however, there is still a need to be current and make information access more efficient.

The greatest theme among librarians present at the round table is how to deal with decreased traffic with the library's needs to expand information options to patrons. There is a huge concern that the reference desk--and the reference librarian--are a diminishing idea. With the increase in electronic services, how do libraries reconcile electronic literacy through databases and other library services with diminishing use.

There is still an incredible sense of optimism that reference services will not go anywhere. The question is how do we project our services in the future. Many librarians are ready for the change, and eager to be relevant and embrace change and technology.

There was some discussion about eReference and the importance of electronic reference. There was some discussion about the increasing electronic presence of librarians in the future, eliminating the physical face-to-face contact in the equation. The general consensus is that reference is undergoing some changes. It is just a matter of wait and see, yet embrace whatever changes may come based on demand and the changing frontier in services and collection.

There is a real opportunity for reference staff to transition properly by building a constituency of support to make sure that reference librarians and their services do not become defensive. Instead, the theme is for reference services to become progressive and try test runs. One librarian suggested embracing change to explore new ideas such as blogs and wikis. Like any profession, changes are bound to take place, but reference librarians are in a position to make the change more easily.

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