By now most of you have read this article: "Geeks are the Future: A Program in Ann Arbor, MI, Argues for a Shift Toward IT." If you haven't, read it now!
Eli Neiburger, Associate Director of IT and production, AADL is quoted as saying "We need big servers and the geeks to take care of them...What are we going to cut to be able to hire a geek? We are going to cut reference staff. Reference is dead."
Richard Kong, Information Services Manager at AHML, commented. He said, "As much as I agree with Eli’s statement that libraries need to invest more in geeks, I hope he agrees that librarians, many of whom have passionately served their local communities for years, can find new life."
Here's what I think:
Reference Librarians need to keep up with technology. It's not avoidable any more. The nature of the questions we get at public library reference desks has changed. People aren't asking what the gross national product of Peru is or what the state symbol of Kentucky is. Those things can be Googled. Easily. Eli is right - people are "acclimated to Google searches." People need librarians to help them find library databases and the catalog (since, as the article points out, they aren't starting their searches there...). People need librarians to help them learn to use eBook Readers and other mobile devices, and especially to connect to library resources with these devices. Sure, with the proper aptitudes and training, parapros can offer these services. Who's going to train them? Who's going to provide a reference role model? Librarians are. We can't train parapros unless we're up to speed ourselves.
Part-time, paraprofessional staff tend to be more transitory than full-time professional staff. They are often students, who move on to full-time jobs elsewhere or in a different field once they graduate. They may be older adults working part-time retirement jobs to get them out of the house a few days a week. They are surely lovely people who are very smart and great at their jobs. If you're lucky, you get a really great parapro who makes a long-term career out of it, but temporary or "moving through the system" staff are less invested in the long term.
Eli also said, in this article, "If they are professionals, librarians should be behind the scenes and their time should be spent carefully. And you can get a lot of savings by staffing with a different level of support at the reference desk." I believe that Librarians need to be aware that everything they do while at work, whether it is done at a service desk or in a back room cubicle, is done for the good of the patrons. We plan programs for patrons. We buy materials for patrons. In order for Librarians to do their off-desk activities successfully, they need to be aware of what the patrons want and need. They need to know their community and the "flavor" of their library. I'm a believer in holistic library practices, or the idea that everything is connected. We have to see the bigger picture of the library as a whole in order to make decisions that do the most good for the most people. How do reference transactions translate to programs? How do programs translate to collections? Librarians need to interact with patrons in order to do the rest of their job holistically.
Parapros might get bored with the idea of being on-desk all the time. They don't get to do much else, beyond maybe making displays or special projects here and there. How will libraries keep them excited, inspired, and challenged? Do the professional librarians now spend their days thinking up ways to make sure the parapros are engaged? Don't misunderstand; parapros at the service desks are wonderful. They are so helpful and so good at their jobs that I can't imagine not having them around. They allow the professional librarians to have off-desk time. They have not, however, replaced us at the service desks. I do, admittedly, spend time balancing projects between Interns and Reference Assistants to make sure everyone has something interesting going on. I encourage our parapros to attend workshops and webinars to be constantly learning and motivated. I encourage them to follow their passion - whatever that may be - and seek ways to encorporate what they love into their jobs. Those who are great at technology get to teach an occasional computer class. Those who are great at readers advisory get to post reviews on the Staff Choices blog. There are all kinds of ongoing projects that parapros can get involved in, while still working mainly at the service desks...but someone has to oversee their projects and make sure they have opportunities.
The deal AADL made with Magnatune is really, really cool! It requires professional IT personnel to pull off. There's little doubt that your average reference librarian (like me, for example) couldn't pull off a project of that scale. I'm somewhat techie for a reference librarian, but I am not techie at all by professional IT standards! I rely heavily on our IT staff for many projects that are nowhere near as groundbreaking. AADL clearly has an amazing IT staff.
In the end, I think that every library has to decide for itself whether they want to be an IT library and offer truly awesome IT projects or if they are more of a collection-based or traditional programming-based institution. Is early literacy and storytime the big draw, or is the local history collection the thing that brings people in? Maybe it's a legendary collection of DVDs or an amazing annual community reads program. There are lots of exciting things that libraries of all sizes can make their name for. In Ann Arbor, it's technology. That is one cool library system, and I applaud them for doing what works in their community.
I'm not sure reference is dead in mine.