A few days ago, I stopped by the class of the freshly-minted new cohort of my program to say hello to them on behalf of a professional organization I work with, and to invite them to join and/or attend an upcoming event. It took all of ten minutes, no big deal. I got there a little early, and took the opportunity to spend a few minutes eavesdropping on a new variant of a class I was in this time last year. It’s a standard sort of foundational course about understanding patron groups and their needs, information seeking behavior, that kind of thing. And it’s always interesting to see how a different teacher would teach the same class. But this was more than a difference of teaching style — this seemed to be a totally different course.
A few minutes before I was due to talk to the cohort, the program director/academic advisor stepped out into the hall to chat. I mentioned to her that this cohort was doing entirely different work than we had done in the same course just a year before. She told me with some exasperation that our parent school had completely axed the standalone reference course from the curriculum, and now the only reference instruction any future students would receive would be this component of a larger course. Their rationale for the decision, she said, was that “reference is dead.”
Reference has, admittedly, changed a lot in recent years… but dead? Really? The course had traditionally been taught by a rather beloved local academic reference librarian who admitted that much of the time, he had more people waiting for help at the reference desk than one librarian could handle. At the medical/academic library where I work, our reference librarians stay pretty busy. And our local public library has a virtual reference service that operates 24/7. That virtual service, in fact, has been the first professional step into reference for many of my program’s graduates, the first time they get to practice and gain the experience necessary to be a good reference librarian. The catch is, in order to volunteer for this service, you have to have taken a course in reference at an ALA-accredited library school… and now our library school no longer offered such a course.
Is a unit on reference in a broader course — perhaps all of 2-3 weeks of instruction in total — really enough to prepare a library student to provide reference services to patrons? My program director shook her head. “Everybody tells me to just not worry about it… but I have to worry about it. This is my community.” This school has produced by far the majority of librarians in my city, so what does a sudden absence of reference instruction mean for reference services locally over the long term? Perhaps young librarians will be able to teach themselves through experimentation and trial-and-error, but is that really a sound foundation? Will our public library’s virtual reference service have to lower its standards to include these students as volunteers? Will it have to provide the training that our school no longer does? Or will it have to outsource more of its reference services to make up the shortfall? And what will happen to the students who don’t get that vital early experience before they go looking for their first professional positions?
Of course, any class on reference will inevitably have to change with the times. There’s no question that reference is a very different animal than it was 20 years ago. The patrons have changed, the ways in which we interact with them have changed, the resources we show them have changed, and the sorts of questions they ask have also, I have no doubt, changed. But reference is still, in a way, the very soul of librarianship: it’s helping patrons find the information they want, and hopefully teaching them a little about how to be effective searchers and users of information along the way. The reference desk (or its virtual equivalent) is still the place where patrons and librarians come together to work. It’s no longer the hub of the library that it once was… but is that the same as being “dead?”
I’d love to hear from other library students on this. How does your program handle reference instruction? What was your reference class like? How do you see reference fitting into the library of the future? Or does it? Are classes in reference unnecessary now? If you’ve taken one, how do you use what you learned in it in your work? Leave a comment!