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From where you’re standing

May 19, 2011
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The first time I heard Eli Neiberger speak, he said adamantly, “Don’t call me a librarian. I’m not a librarian.” Since I was at a brown bag on forward thinking librarians at the time, you can imagine I took a step back. Who let in the riffraff? Neiberger has been stirring things up in the library world recently. Named a Library Journal Mover and Shaker in technology this year, his two soap box speeches – “Libraries are Screwed” and “Reference is Dead” – have struck a nerve with current and future librarians. A few selected blogs reveal the discontent with Neiberger’s assertions.

Recently, I had the pleasure to attend the afternoon sessions at Library Camp in conjunction with the National Library Unconference Day at the Ann Arbor District Library, where Neiberger works. In addition to an interesting conversation about eBooks that continued after the session presented by Neiberger at the Unconference, I attended a round table titled “Is Reference Dead?” It was a very stimulating conversation for a relative newbie to the library world with strong arguments on both sides. I left the talk with at least as many questions as answers, an effective signal for good thought food.

A few crumbs:

The first question to consider is the apparent decline in “real” reference questions that librarians address. This mythical perfect reference question from a patron with a deep, complicated (but not too complicated) information need is as illusive as the TARDIS. Are ready reference questions still reference questions? Are the endless “where is the bathroom” or “how do I connect to the wifi” questions still reference questions? By what metrics are we measuring reference questions?

Should libraries be able to respond to what the need actually is versus what the expectation is? If reference questions in your library are drastically down, can you effectively call reference dead? If no one comes to story time, can you cancel story time? Or are reference and story time services a library provides regardless of success?

The second important question: Is it worth a librarian’s time to spend 20 hours a week on a desk directing patrons to the bathroom? This is quite possibly the most important question asked at a reference desk. I mean, consider the alternative to finding a bathroom. In terms of making a difference in patrons’ lives, pointing them to the bathroom really can’t be overstated; however, we must face the reality that the reference desk model is a poor match for answering the mythical perfect reference question, assuming it even exists.  Matching the information need requires the right person with the right specialized knowledge be in the right place at the right time. When was the last time anyone managed to orchestrate successfully a serendipitous event?

As Neiberger brought up at this round table discussion, consider a doctor’s office. Who do you talk to? The receptionist and the nurse act as gatekeepers before you can see the doctor. The doctor’s time is treated as very precious, and there is a carefully constructed support system that maximizes the doctor’s time. While we certainly don’t need to take our customer service philosophy from doctors, this model is one that is worth considering.

And even after these questions are asked and considered, there is one final and most important question to answer. Who are your patrons? What represents the best service for them? In some public libraries, the small ones particularly, reference is vehemently not dead, and having a degree carrying librarian on the desk is an integral part of providing excellent service. For the Ann Arbor District Library, which is large enough to support very specialized job descriptions, maybe it is appropriate to move reference services down the line in order to allow the librarians to do work more suited to their talents. The same consideration can be applied to academic libraries as well. Reference is only dead if it’s dead where you are standing.

No matter if you feel Neiberger is on the right path or dead wrong, we can’t deny that he’s taken the box and poured out the contents. He’s gotten people talking. This is the very essence of a mover and shaker, is it not?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 19, 2011 12:58 pm

    I think the library world needs more people like Eli. He’s an instigator, which completely runs against the general perception of librarians.

    If you permit, I’ll link to my own blog where, for the past… two weeks, I’ve been wrestling with this idea. Prepare to be underwhelmed: http://postreference.tumblr.com/

  2. May 19, 2011 5:32 pm

    While I mostly agree with both Meggan and Peter that Eli is an incredibly interesting person with compelling ideas about the future of the library, I also find myself struggling with the fact that he’s an IT guy with a background in architecture. I believe that there is room for everyone at the table here, but I’m reluctant to let someone without a library background (and education) tell me how reference librarians should conduct themselves. As someone who worked in libraries – including the AADL – for years before heading off to ischool, I am absolutely certain that it is possible to work at a library without fully understanding the intricacies of reference librarianship. Am I being a snob? Perhaps. I am curious to see where this debate goes; my own thoughts on the subject right now are murky at best.

    (Keep up the good work, ladies!)

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