This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

March 20, 2008 - who needs reference librarians?

Some of today's reference librarians are worried. You can see it in a recent editorial in Library Journal, by editor emeritus John Berry. I've heard it from my own staff in a recent round of talks with them.

They see a profound shift in the way we do business. To some, it looks like a de-skilling of the profession (without the hyphen, that looks like "desk-killing" to me, which might be accurate): doing away with circulation desks, putting more people "on the floor," shifting to paraprofessionals tasks that were once reserved for those with advanced degrees.

Together, it seems to add up to a more retail orientation, and a de-valuing of the education librarians worked so hard to achieve.

I understand the anxiety: when people's jobs change, they get nervous. They want to do well, and sometimes, the new "frame" isn't clear.

I'm one of those directors who wholeheartedly supports moving to what I think is a 21st century model of library services. But I absolutely reject the notion that the intent is to devalue my own profession. To the contrary.

Librarians are right: we ARE seeing a profound shift in the way we do business. It is a bottom-up transformation. It will end by greatly increasing the real and perceived value of librarians.

It begins with our adoption of new technologies: self-check, automated returns. These technologies haven't been cheap: but they are cheaper than people. And they do the mechanical, repetitive tasks that machines are good at, but take a steep toll on human beings in cumulative injuries.

Using machines to do such tasks is sensible: it frees up people to do what machines can't do -- use intelligence, provide direct service to other human beings.

But what did we do with the people who no longer had to stand behind circulation desks? We gave them additional training (and pay), and put them out where they could provide that service.

But that encroached on "traditional" reference territory. And to a certain extent that's accurate: people without library degrees are indeed talking to patrons, recommending books, building displays, and assisting with various library tools.

What then, is the job of the reference librarian?

I believe there are several:

* expert backup. Many of the questions we get aren't hard. In fact, about 84% of them are handled very quickly. But that last 16% is genuinely tough. For those, we really need experts, with the experience, training, and tenacity to track down accurate information. Reference librarians then become team leaders of newly integrated circulation and reference staffs. They're still in our building, and they still talk to real patrons.

* filling the gaps in our collection. Most of our new materials arrive in a never-ending flow: we've worked up purchase profiles based on what we've learned about the interests of our community. But there are gaps, both in our print and our electronic collections. We look for our professionals to help us identify the core works, classics, or altogether missing topics and perspectives.

* community reference work. I've touched on this in the past; I believe it to be the frontier of professional reference work. In brief, we need to send our experts out of the library, into the community, to listen closely for the questions, sometimes crucially important to the community, that it just doesn't occur to anyone to take to the library.

We're learning a lot about this. It does require a mix of new skills and old. For instance, our librarians are trained to conduct individual reference interviews. But how do you interview a community group -- and extract clear and meaningful questions?

Then, we go back and do the research -- an old skill. But then, we have to package it, and present it either in public or on our website -- and that's a newer skill.

This transformation won't happen overnight. But it will happen. Why?

Because we know it works. The new model results in significant and continuing growth of use -- that's added value.

For reference librarians, the more passive strategy of the past -- waiting for people to come to us -- simply means that we're not doing our best to provide the quality reference services the whole community has paid for.

Who needs reference librarians? We ALL do. But they might have to show up at your meeting before you realize it.

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