Last week I commented on the Library Journal Article "Geeks are the Future: A Program in Ann Arbor, MI, Argues for a Shift Toward IT. (http://hhibner.blogspot.com/2011/04/ever-changing-reference.html) Yesterday I attended the "Library Camp" unconference at the Ann Arbor District Library and participated in a discussion about the future of reference librarians and whether reference is truly dead.
I stand by a few main points I made in my blog post last week: Librarians need to stay connected to the community they serve and remember that all of their work, both off-desk and on, is for the good of the patrons. After yesterday's discussion, though, I have a new perspective on a few other points.
Someone brought up the idea that when we're working at the reference desk, we are likely helping one or two (maybe three on a really busy day) people at once. Maybe you help a dozen or so people in an hour. However, the work we do behind the scenes likely impacts hundreds or even thousands of people. We write blog posts for our web sites and social media accounts, we plan programs, we purchase materials, we create videos and podcasts, we create displays, and countless other projects. The impact of these off-desk projects is much farther-reaching than our on-desk work. Our highest paid and most highly skilled staff need to be responsible for those projects that bring the greatest impact to the most people.
Everyone agreed that the work we do at the reference desk is important. It is very important that we help people with their resumes, their searches, and their use of the various services we offer. Yesterday at the unconference, Eli Neiburger said that the work itself is not meant to be diminished. It is not as important, however, that the person offering the help has an MLIS (or equivalent) as it is that the person getting the help gets, well...helped. The kinds of questions typically asked at reference desks do not require MLIS degrees. They require training, experience, a customer service mentality, and some specific core competencies. An Ann Arbor librarian pointed out that help is never far away for those times when a deeper level of knowledge or skill is required at the reference desk. We need to put the right people in every position in the library, and to embrace the idea that every position has a purpose and contributes to the success of the whole building.
So, I'm softening my stance on the idea that "reference is dead." Reference Librarians have always had to keep up with changes in technology and information access/retrieval. Ours is still a vital profession, but will continue to change. We don't have to feel threatened by these changes; we can see them as an opportunity. We won't be pulling reference librarians off of the desk any time soon at my library, but in the last two years their time at the service desks has been augmented by the use of Reference Assistants. That works for us.
I still stand by the my statement that every library needs to know what is relevant to their community. Citizens don't know what is possible at libraries. It is up to us to innovate and, to borrow a phrase from SSLDL, to "imagine the possibilities" for them. There are a lot of really cool and innovative services at libraries all over the country, but just because they're cool doesn't mean they're right for every community. We have to give our community what they need and imagine a future for them that is relevant.