Whither Reference?

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.”

“I have no idea what I’m doing.”

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!

18 replies

  1. Pretty much everything in my program is hybrid class, and reference was no exception. It was heavy on readings, with every reading classified as either being about reference sources or services. Everything was discussion based. When we did not meet we relied heavily on Blackboard discussion, and when we did meet in person, it was basically in seminar format: long discussions about the readings facilitated by the instructor, with usually no lecture. We went over useful resources, but it was acknowledged up front that what resources are available varies so it’s worth getting familiar with them but not fixating on them. We did a little reference interview practice. Probably not as much as I’d like, but then again since actually working a reference desk I’ve realized that library student approximations of patrons aren’t usually very similar to the real thing.


  2. My reaction was similar to yours – Reference’s dead? There’s so many examples I could draw upon but they all blur together, it seems I come across articles, books, comments, several times a week that concludes that “reference” (known by many other names these days, just like “librarian” or “library”) is not only relevant but more important than ever. Yes, people can use Google to find information, but is it the right information for what they actually need? Or do they actually need something different and not know it. A reference interview teases important nuance that out, whereas leaving people to their own devices (no pun intended) doesn’t always work out. Especially given the fact people who use search engines like Google, that create a “filter bubble” of results based on the user’s search history, excludes results that maybe valuable and authoritative but their algorithym can’t differenitate as well as a human brain.


  3. I’m in what you would probably recognize as a “traditional” reference class right now (though word is this particular class won’t exist next year and will be swallowed into a larger whole). And while I’m enjoying the class because I love answering questions and understanding user behaviors, I’m not all that surprised that it’s fading from favor as a separate class. How much theory about reference interviews is necessary for the non-research minded LIS student? How many different EBSCO databases can you look at critically?

    It seems like a more realistic goal to integrate reference into every LIS class than to expect it to stand on its own. The width and breadth of resources available are too vast to cover in 16 weeks, and it seems like reference theory will always end up being trumped by reference experience. By combining reference concepts with all of our other classes, I could see students developing a greater understanding of the underlying concepts because they will see direct applications right away.

    I don’t think reference will ever really go away, because no computer can provide the same level of service. But I’m just not sure it still needs its own class.


    • Agreed – incorporating reference with other topics seems to be favoring theory over practice, which was the model of the majority of my classes in library school. Learning specific resources is next to useless because of how quickly things change. The reference interview, while a very important tool, is no so complex that it requires multiple weeks of study.

      Learning the theory behind providing good reference while in library school will be strengthened by actual experience outside of it, and I see no reason why basic theory can’t be taught intermingled with other classes. Those who want deeper understanding should be able to take reference-related electives.


  4. I’m really disappointed that they cut the reference class. It was instrumental in my being able to start my internship and helped me when I gained my first position. Yes, they did do additional training, but I learned so much from that course that it felt like a review for me. Any position you end up in will have you trained on the resources that system contains (or at the very least give you a brief overview), but being able to understand the basics before starting will give you an advantage not just when you get the position, but when you interview for it. Furthermore, that reference course was more than just the reference interview or learning about resources. We also had to build our own mini reference collections and learn how to evaluate said resources, rather than just use them. It took on a management perspective that I think would be missing from a hybrid course.


  5. I just graduated in May. We had not only the required reference class at University of Missouri, but there was also an optional virtual reference class. As I was serving as a graduate reference assistant at the time, to me the basic reference class was easy but for those not doing reference work I would have deemed it necessary. After all, I saw tons of people using the reference desk and our virtual reference service! We always had two librarians and/or graduate assistants on duty at the desks and one on virtual reference. Additionally, we often had to call for back up!

    I agree reference is changing, but it is not going away. In a recent post on my own blog (http://amysscrapbag.wordpress.com/2012/08/20/modern-reference/), I argued reference is no longer finding answers for patrons. It is now a tool for teaching information literacy as we help them work through the steps to find the answers.


  6. I certainly think reference classes need to evolve as reference services has (my class was all about books and the syllabus was literally the same one the prof had been using for 20 years), but nothing pisses me off than all the people saying “Reference is Dead.” No, no, no! It has changed, but that doesn’t mean it’s dead! Gah!

    I wrote this post over a year ago, and it’s just as true today: If Reference is Dead, Why Am I So Tired At The End of The Day?


  7. Unfortunately my reference class was a waste of a semester and money. Our professor lectured to us for all of our 3-hour class and I have forgotten most of what he told us. Luckily I still have the textbook…


  8. I’m afraid that I personally did not gain very much from my Reference class. It was three hours of lecturing on sources I have already forgotten about, and over the course of my career those reference materials will quickly become outdated. If I could teach the course I would focus on teaching students to develop resourcefulness and search strategies that would serve them regardless of what the actual materials are.


  9. I agree with the point that The Librarienne made, reference studies and instructors need to evolve and move beyond traditional practices. Whether libraries are integrating social media and web 2.0 applications into reference services, or using reference services for a larger platform to teach information literacy skills, it illustrates that reference is not dead, just different.


  10. Hi Amy, From the first two paragraphs of your blog entry, it appears that your example is referring to the class I taught this weekend. While the rest of your entry may or may not carry this example forward, I would like to offer the following clarification. In paragraph 4 you suggest that 2-3 weeks spent on reference is not enough, please do note that my class will spend approximately 11 out of a total of 16 weeks on traditional reference, the balance covering materials concerning information seeking behavior and sense making. Further, that while our school is currently updating our reference offerings, we are planning on offering 1 if not 2 additional advanced “reference” courses.

    In regards to the larger issue of reference, I personally believe and discuss to some length with my students the idea that while the fundamental vocation/techniques of reference are changing, the values, behaviors, and theories that anchor this professional activity remain the same.


  11. I love this piece–thank you Amy, for your candor. As a career librarian, PhD student and part-time library school instructor, I have given this a lot of thought too.
    I agree with Dr. Tuai’s approach; graduate-level classes must be about more than the technical/how-to bit of librarianship, in a reference class or otherwise. In my upcoming community needs analysis class, we do not spend the whole time working on how to get at census and other sorts of demographic data; those tools will keep changing. We’ll cover theory, and normative beliefs and values and how they affect our world view. We’ll read texts and watch film clips that, at first glance, have nothing to do with librarianship. It’s the bigger societal picture and the lives of community members (and our place in their lives) that must be understood (the why of community analysis). Of course, my objective is also for my students to finish the class feeling confident that they can design and execute a community analysis project. In addition to this, however, I want them to have a true understanding of why it must be a continual effort–the part, as Dr. Tuai says, that remains “the same.”
    All this said, I do suspect that if someone wishes to become a reference librarian, as I intended to do some time ago, a class (or two)–so long as it approaches understanding and meeting information needs from the perspective of the consumer– would benefit aspiring professionals. A class on serving the typical middle-class library user may just leave you scratching your head (as it did for me when I went to work in south Chicago out of library school).


  12. Reference is extremely important. But reference has changed, perhaps more than the reference classes taught in library schools.

    Here’s an incident from the one required reference course I took in SLIS. Take from it whatever lesson you find:

    Each student was asked to bring to class a question that we thought would be typical of what would be asked of a reference librarian. Everyone traded questions with the student in an adjacent seat. We had 20 minutes to find the answer to our question. Most of the students dashed upstairs to the university library. Another student and I stayed in the classroom to use the library’s databases. I struggled for more than 10 minutes trying to find sources that clearly would answer the question I was given. Finally, with only five or so minutes to go, I turned to Google and Google Scholar. I found a dozen promising sources within 60 seconds and had in hand a good general answer to the reference question and five excellent sources of more information before the 20 minutes was up. My classmate who also remained in the room had a similar experience, succeeding only after using Google.

    Some 25 minutes after the exercise had started — five minutes or more minutes after the deadline — the instructor had to go upstairs to fetch the students who had searched in the stacks. When we each reported the results of our search, half or more of the students who had looked in the stacks said they either failed or only partially succeeded in finding what they were looking for. And none of them found their information in the 20 minutes allowed.


  13. Reference is the bread and butter of most academic and public jobs. Do you want a job? Then go to a proper school that has a reference class or two. Library school classes are mostly taught by Phds who are divorced and unacquainted with real librarianship.

    With their “innovations” and “proclamations” libraries would’ve already become Borders-like information centers. Remember Borders? They went bankrupt.

    When I interview applicants I care about only 2 classes: Reference and Information Literacy.

    Want to get hired? Go to the right school, attain the right skills.


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