Reference isn’t dead, just different

by Andy Woodworth

Andy WoodworthI recently read Brian Kenny’s latest column piece for Publisher’s Weekly “Where Reference Fits in the Modern Library” which talks about the state of reference in public libraries. It’s worth a read and I’d suggest taking it in before continuing here. Don’t worry, I can wait.

First off, Brian nails some essential points; that reference expectations of the community have changed and that some of the old models are no longer viable. I couldn’t agree more since the majority of the interactions I have experienced in the last seven years revolve around technology. Either they are asking for me to look something up (be it a book or website or phone number), having trouble with a personal gadget or device, or need assistance printing or copying. These are not always two minute questions but can easily blossom into ten to sixty minute reference interactions in which the process reveals how much assistance the person actually needs. (Note: The sixty minute interactions aren’t usually in a row, but a series of smaller sessions within one visit or the boon of a very quiet night at the desk.) For my department, I encourage people to invest the time when they can and work around the circumstances when they cannot (usually by inviting the person to make an appointment with staff). It’s not perfect, but it recognizes the new reality.

In moving “forward”, I’m tepid on the idea of roving reference as a practice; the desk is best because it gives a central spot for people to get helped. I do like to go into the stacks every now and again to greet people and offer help if they have that certain look (the “not quite sure I’m in the right spot” one). As for leaving the building, the social/political reality of sending out staff makes it an exercise of “what if” hand wringing. What if they get hurt? What if their time could be utilized better inside the library? What if this is the wrong group and there is a different group they should be seeing? It can easily strangle outreach efforts with the fear of an angry taxpayer or employer liability for a mishap. It really requires deeper, more introspective conversations with staff and stakeholders to neutralize the gut fears and realize the benefits of committed and involved outreach. That is one element that is within our grasp that will reference as a community servicer forward.

I turn downright ornery towards the physical reference collection as a continuing concept that libraries should embrace. I’ll easily concede that there are specialized print materials that the average public library should have on hand for the layman to access. There should always be a print collection for those subjects and topics that have not transitioned or transitioned well to digital. But should they be chained to the shelves with their reference ‘do not circulate’ status? I don’t think so. Unless it is a outrageously stupid expensive books (and anyone who has spent [some pun intended] five minutes in collection development has seen one), there needs to be a more compelling reason to keep them from circulating. In weeding the reference collection here at my library, I have found books that I would rather see circulate than languish on the shelf.  I am presently looking at a leaner, meaner physical collection that covers the topics better than their online counterparts. It’s a shame, a real shame to keep library materials behind the invisible glass of the reference collection. We as a profession need to let go of placing or keeping such items in that protected status.

I wouldn’t say I hate online databases, but my intense dislike for them could keep the Earth warm if there was ever a nuclear winter. They are a hole into which libraries pour money. Databases feed on our ideals and fears simultaneously; that we should always have “something for everyone” and if we don’t then we are bad at our jobs and they will shut down the library forever. As a public librarian, a number of databases fill a niche within a niche: school homework in which the teacher is making them use a non-Google search non-Wikipedia article online resource (both sites mentioned can be perfectly fine, depending on the student age and topic). Even if they are not dragged to the database kicking and screaming, it is often a wonky interface or experience that will make them think even less of the resource. And that’s before you have to explain the difference between a citation and a full text entry, the too opt spoken preamble to a what-do-you-mean-you-don’t-actually-have-it utterance. The relatively low usage compared to relatively high price point makes it for a bad, horrible, no-good deal. For me, it compels a reevaluation of priorities: do I want to spend money on a knowledgable but seldom used database, or do I want to spend that money on presenters, programs, and other in-person education and entertainment offerings? The latter is much more attractive these days.

Not all of this onus is on the database providers; librarians know nearly jack squat about promoting databases (or programs or services or even the collection, for that matter). The carefully prepared generic publicity materials that are provided by companies can get lost in the shuffle beside program flyers and governmental forms or simply gather dust in a box on a shelf in an office. Even with a staff commitment to promote, it take as P.T. Barnum level of showmanship to make any database (especially dry academic ones) appear to be remotely alluring. There isn’t no single major point of failure in the library-database relationship, but many small ones that make the arrangement expensive and dreadfully inefficient. In the meantime, it’s a giant chunk of change that we flush down the collection development toilet.

Pivoting away from the collection and back to the staff, I agree with Brian that reference and reference services have to customer service oriented. I would go further in emphasizing this point as it should be the pinnacle and mission of reference department. Reference service occupies that grey space between the community and the knowledge they seek (be it in a book or movie or in-person instruction), a guide for those who get lost along the way. It has to be the best experience the library can offer for two basic reasons: first, helping people is within our mission statements, professional ideals, and possibly our personal motivations for becoming a librarian. (I know it is for me.) It’s the empathy and kindness that we can offer in addition to our expertise that feeds both spirit and mind. Second, it’s some of the best advocacy we can do on our behalf. In an age of tailored customer experiences, the extra attention does not go unnoticed or unremarked. This is the elemental process that turns visitors into users and users into (library) lovers and advocates. These kinds of interactions with stakeholders can make or break libraries in the short term and create ripples in the long term. Without a doubt, good customer service is absolutely vital to reference services now and in the foreseeable future.

Reference isn’t dead, just different. The print collection may shrink and the online resources may be more carefully selected, but the job remains the same: to help people. It may take us longer or go more in depth, but the investment in people (both on the staff side by emphasizing attitude and customer service skills and taking the time to care for library users) pays dividends for everyone involved. Reference will always be there in libraries because someone will always have a question.


About the Author

Andy Woodworth is a nationally recognized librarian and library issue advocate. He is a 2010 Library Journal Mover & Shaker, an award winning blogger “Agnostic, Maybe“, and noted conference presenter. He has previously written articles and opinion pieces for Library Journal, American Libraries, and TechSoup for Libraries. He is the head of a bustling reference department in New Jersey. You can follow him @wawoodworth and read his off-again, on-again posts at Medium.

Naomi House

Naomi House, MLIS, is the founder and publisher of the popular webzine and jobs list (formerly I Need a Library Job) and former CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) of, a crowdfunding platform focused on African patrimony, heritage and cultural projects. INALJ was founded in October 2010 with the assistance of her fellow Rutgers classmate, Elizabeth Leonard. Its social media presence has grown to include Facebook (retired in 2016), Twitter and a LinkedIn group, in addition to the interviews, articles and jobs found on INALJ. INALJ has had over 21 Million page hits and helped many, many thousands of librarians find employment! Through grassroots marketing, word of mouth and a real focus on exploring unconventional resources for job leads, INALJ grew from a subscription base of 20 friends to a website with over 500,000 visits in one month. Naomi believes that well-sourced quantity is quality in this narrow job market and INALJ reflects this with many new jobs published daily. She has also written for the 2011, 2012 and 2013 LexisNexis Government Info Pro and many other publications in the past decade. She presents whenever she can, including serving on three panels at the American Library Association's Annual Conference in Las Vegas; as breakout presenter at OCLC EMEA in Cape Town, South Africa; as a keynote speaker at the Virginia Library Association annual meeting; at the National Press Club in Washington DC; McGill University in Montreal, Canada; the University of the Emirates, Dubai, MLIS program and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Naomi was a Reference, Marketing and Acquisitions Librarian for a contractor at a federal library outside Washington, DC, and has been living and working in Budapest, Hungary and Western New York State. She spent years running her husband’s moving labor website, fixed and sold old houses and assisted her husband cooking delicious Pakistani food. She is preparing to re-enter the workforce and is job hunting. Her husband is now the co-editor of INALJ, a true support!  She has heard of spare time but hasn’t encountered it lately. She pronounces INALJ as eye-na-elle-jay. 


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