In which I disagree, but am hopefully not disagreeable.

I just read a post called “Where Reference Fits in the Modern Library” written by White Plains Public Library director Brian Kenney for Publishers Weekly. It’s a thoughtful and impassioned piece, although slightly woeful, in which Kenney suggests that library reference services have “just disappeared” and “no one in the library field seems intent on figuring out what happened.”

He goes on to talk about how library members have less interest in traditional reference resources, but do want help “doing things” (like using the technology that’s become ubiquitous in our daily lives) rather than “finding things.” With that, I wholeheartedly agree.  Kinney says that “it’s time to acknowledge that something else… is taking the place of traditional reference service in public libraries” and reassures librarians that there’s room for hope but that “the challenge isn’t going to get any easier until we start talking about it.”

I’ve never met Brian Kenney. I do know that he is an intelligent and highly educated librarian who started his library science degree while I was still in 3rd grade. I also agree with him that traditional reference services, with a stern-looking librarian sitting behind an imposing desk, are a thing of the past.

Stern librarian, surrounded by old books.
Stern librarian, surrounded by old books.

But I don’t see reference as having “disappeared” at all. Changed, certainly, but it’s not exactly hiding. Kinney’s examples don’t reflect my experience (either as a user, a volunteer, or a new professional) with libraries and their services over the past several years.

I’m not sure which library schools Kinney is referring to in this post, but I can assure everyone that far from “not discussing references services at all,” I’m currently taking a required course in library Reference & Info Literacy Services, learning new things, and enjoying it very much. In fact, one of my class assignments is to shadow a reference librarian for 6 hours this semester, and I’ll be conducting my observation at the Fayetteville Free Library which has three makerspaces on site and offers its members multiple resources for STEM learning, technology assistance, and job/resume/career help.

To me, the fact that library members seek help in using their digital devices is nothing new. My beloved Hamilton Public Library​ employs a Digital Service and Outreach Coordinator who offers technology assistance to community members. In fact, she’s offering an ebook & audiobook workshop on 9/17/15 and an internet basics workshop on 9/24/15.

Hamilton Public Library. Photo shamelessly borrowed from their Facebook page since I'm reasonably sure the Library Director won't mind.
Hamilton Public Library. Photo shamelessly borrowed from their Facebook page since I’m reasonably sure the Library Director won’t mind.

Most of the librarians I know (especially my friends Bev and Hilary) are certainly not “clinging to an outdated reference mission.” As a matter of fact, I don’t think I know a single librarian who is “carrying on as though little has changed” or expecting to remain stationary at a desk all day (wearing the stereotypical dowdy cardigan sweater and sporting a severe bun in their hair, whilst speaking quietly, and shushing people).

The mental model of the old-school library/librarian may still persist in our society, but mostly as a humorous relic of the past. When I tell people that I’m pursuing an MS in Library and Information Science, the majority don’t even mention books but instead comment on how important technology is in the field, and what a wonderful community resource libraries are. They know that libraries aren’t dead, but serving their communities in exciting new ways.

Brian Kenney has written a good article presenting his experience, and if it serves as a wake-up call to reactionary, heads-in-the-sand reference librarians who don’t want to think about change, all the better! My experience has been somewhat different. And, yes, I fully acknowledge that I’m only a first-semester LIS student approaching this as a library user, volunteer, and community member, rather then as someone who’s been in the profession for years. But a large part of the reason I decided to change careers was hearing and reading librarians talk and write about how the profession has been changing and how they’re dynamically meeting the challenges inherent in the seismic shift.

Maybe I’m inexperienced and out of touch. Or maybe I’m just phenomenally privileged to only know forward-thinking librarians who have been talking about these issues for as long as I’ve known them. Either way, I’m all-in when it comes to my quest for knowledge and my goal to become a kick-ass Super Librarian of the Future.

Please tell me what you think. Is reference dead? Disappearing? Or responding well to change and thriving? What’s your experience with library reference services? I’m eager to know.