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Preparing to Meet The Future of Reference Service

Preparing to Meet the Future of Reference Service: Leverage Knowledge and Instruction for Tomorrow’s University Library David Michalski, MLS, Ph.D. Humanities and Social Sciences Librarian & Reference Services Manager University of California, Davis May 25, 2011

The next–generation research university reference librarian must address several challenges as she or he seeks to provide instructional and research assistance in the future. These include the fundamental challenges traditionally associated with reference such as the challenge of turning novice students into experienced researchers with critical thinking skills, as well as increasingly important challenges related to the changing information environment, including a new focus on the skills associated with interpretation and translation in an era of cross-disciplinary and integrated databases/collections. These challenges are complicated by a widely-held assumption that the growth of digital resources makes reference service a less important part of the library than it once was. Recent essays have called for libraries to bid farewell to reference service, casting it as an institutional burden no longer necessary or desired in era of electronic books and online communication. When dismantling reference service, however, many universities find they need to redirect resources to instruction, research assistance and outreach. Once they pry beneath the label, they find the essential qualities of reference service. They learn reference is not just a desk, a collection of encyclopedias, or a person hired to dispense answers. They learn reference, when it is executed appropriately, adds value to the research university’s mission. It provides a creative, intelligent and sensitive medium between the researcher and the world of information. The myth that technological advances have led to the disintermediation between the information user and information provider misinterprets the research process, which is by its character mediated, iterative, cyclical and contemplative. Research proceeds by trial and error, by moving between perception and conception, by recognition and misrecognition. It is seldom linear or direct. It requires the researcher to readjust, deviate and refocus. Reference librarians and the online reference systems they build and occupy encourage critical and flexible decisions by providing or alerting researchers to contextual indicators. As an interconnection or nexus between documents and between researchers the reference medium is positioned to suggest new avenues of inquiry. When built on practical subject knowledge, this medium can improve opportunities through alternative vocabulary and readings. Reference is not an imposition; rather it lays bare what is already integral to the intellectual project of universities. To refer is to provide context, to put into connection, to follow the connection that weaves 1

Preparing to Meet The Future of Reference Service together social worlds. References exist within research as building blocks and road signs. Sometimes these are native to documents, whether transparently inscribed by authors in the form of footnotes or taking shape as obscured in-text allusions to an author’s culture of inquiry. They exist outside of documents too. They take form as the document’s packaging, as gloss by editors, readers, reviewers, or paid and unpaid indexers. The reference librarian of the future must develop successful strategies to draw attention to the relevant contextual clues, those native to the discourse and those parallel to it. The reference librarian thus teaches the archaeology of documents. He or she helps reconstruct how documents come to life, and how they are received in different circumstances. The reference librarian alerts readers to the social life of information by teaching how connections and distinctions take shape within a document’s information network. This work is not an obstacle to research but an extension of the process of reading and understanding, one that can, if actuated appropriately, propel research forward. At its core, reference service is about opening possibilities, about finding and interrogating clues when a research trail appears closed. When configured as such, reference service performs as a vital complement to the research mission, providing clearer frames of inquiry and extending opportunities. It is a crucial part of the library mission because it helps animate collections. It draws value from collections which would otherwise remain inactive on the shelf or in e-collections. Getting reference right extends the utility of local and remote. Beyond the disavowal of mediation, three other trends in our contemporary information environment complicate the reference service of the future. The first is the happy challenge of the university’s increased diversity. The expansion of access to higher education requires reference librarians to enhance their conversational and social skills. Librarians need to empathize with different people from different cultures, different academic backgrounds and with different research practices. Strategies must be developed to communicate in a wide variety of social contexts. This means librarians must know how to use a multiplicity of communication technologies. It also means one must get to know one’s patrons by participating in their academic life. Librarians at universities ought to find ways to imagine the social world of students and faculty, perhaps by attending classes and discussing how syllabi are designed. The university will continue to need a responsive library. This means reference librarians, as the embedded ambassadors of the information world, will need to be capable of striking rapport with the campus’ diverse community. The second challenge facing tomorrow’s reference librarian is not new but is increasingly important. It concerns keeping up with how academic research proliferates in terms of method and in terms of the objects under investigation. The accelerated instability of disciplinary boundaries challenges the library. While new programs proliferate, there is also profound flux under the banners of older areas of study, as canons change and new concerns and perspectives come to reflect our more diverse and complex international academic arena. The library requires people who can represent the practical research needs of the faculty and students, people who can understand their work and anticipate their requirements. Reference librarians must be capable of participating in a dynamic intellectual world. They must develop and sustain an intellectual interest in the subjects they cover. 2

Preparing to Meet The Future of Reference Service Exacerbating these first two challenges is a third. A paradox of transparency has arisen within the contemporary information environment: while the visibility and access to information expands, the social context of information seems to have become less transparent. The same vast, multidisciplinary digital reserves, which make the discovery of information possible has led to a disembodied form of content presentation. Context is harder to perceive. As such it is harder for both the researcher and librarian to re-situate the social location of information. In this environment, the interpretation, evaluation, and translation of sources becomes a crucial factor in the successful research endeavor. As such, universities require the diffusion of new information literacy skills, those appropriate to a changing infoscape. Reference librarians need to take up the challenge to develop grounded strategies to promote and refresh subject specific information competency to a wide spectrum users, both those who are advanced and those just starting out. The new information environment compels students and researchers to take on some of the skills traditionally associated with librarianship. He or she must learn how track down partial and confusing citations, master the ability to navigate a variety of manifest and latent classification schema, and locate the means to search horizontally across areas of expertise. Given the fast and changing publishing industry, the researcher must also gain some understanding of how the communication industry works, how it divides labor and how its output is stored. Librarians can and must teach these skills. At the same time, librarians are forced by changes in the academy to take on some of the skills of the academic researcher. They must participate more intimately in research projects and develop a deeper practical understanding of the place method and theory have in contextualizing research subjects. They must keep familiar with a proliferation of key names and movements which signify schools of thought in disciplines which are increasingly dynamic. The separation between librarian skills and academic research skills no longer holds, but this is not disintermediation. Reference has entered an expanded field. These challenges make it all the more necessary to develop quality reference service. Rather than being in the way, reference librarianship is central to the library’s future effectiveness. A renewed focus on reference, as a system of interaction between users and texts, allows research libraries to think critically about how research happens. While many information professionals focus on the way technology changes reference service, libraries need to also ask how reference can be used to make the library more aware of and responsive to its users. Here I list thirteen emerging principles for administering effective research assistance and instruction, whether it is conducted online or in person, whether in the library or remotely. These interrelated principles also indicate how an investment in reference can help university libraries prepare for the future. 1. All information is mediated. The choice is not between mediation and disintermediation, but between facilitated mediation and obfuscation or distraction.


Preparing to Meet The Future of Reference Service 2. Empower the user. Contemporary research demands a mastery of general information skills. Our user-friendly systems ought to lay bare the context of information, so that researchers can gain a critical understanding of the way information is produced and distributed. 3. Integrate instruction into research assistance. The patron ought to come away from the interaction with the library better prepared to engage the information world. When reference is imagined not as a transaction, but as a conversation wherein skills and knowledge passes between the library and research community, both parties benefit. 4. Librarians need to understand the research process. To be effective in serving students and faculty, the librarian needs to understand the various stages of the research cycle, such as topic formation, the literature review, the search for in-depth analysis and the collection of primary data. This knowledge is best acquired through practice. 5. Librarians need to know the discourse of the clients they serve. While it is impossible for anyone to keep up with all the details of the subjects covered at our diverse universities, efforts ought to be made to staff reference librarians who are knowledgeable about the main emphases and movements in the various fields of research studied. Realistic and supportive systems need to be maintained to develop and nurture subject expertise. This knowledge is not only crucial to maintaining effective reference service, it is what allows the library to support the research and teaching mission of university. 6. Reference and collection development are complementary tasks and ought to be thought about and practiced together. Each requires the ability to assemble and curate information. The integration of these two areas of librarianship is increasingly important. In separating the two reference librarians lose track of the possibilities, and collection development librarians end up purchasing the wrong material. 7. Reference librarianship requires enhanced social skills. The diversity of both research topics and user populations necessitate empathy, curiosity and enthusiasm. The reference interview, the hermeneutic means through which librarians and patrons construct the information query, is not only more important than ever, it must be achieved ever more nimbly and efficiently. In each interaction, whether in-person or in-chat, librarians must develop socially appropriate strategies to strike and maintain a rapport conducive to creative and critical thinking, as well as strategies to make patrons more confident and enthusiastic about their research skills and experience. 8. Reference librarians need to understand the contemporary ways and means through which patrons engage the information world. The reference librarian must also see the world through the patron’s eyes, be they faculty or students. This is necessary to make contextual sense of inquiries, to identify points of confusion, and then work with the patron to find solutions.


Preparing to Meet The Future of Reference Service 9. Reference librarians must gain a fuller awareness of the aims of the curriculum. Reference librarians must know what university faculty are using their assignments to teach. Today, the library is used as more than storehouse of information. It is often used as a laboratory to solve intellectual problems. By understanding the intention of an assignment, the librarian can help better prepare the student to learn from the course experience. 10. Reference librarians must rise to the challenge of preparing life-long learners. In a world of increasing specialization, librarians are positioned to transfer knowledge and skills that transcends any particular subject or major. In a changing social and economic world, this knowledge, which provides a foundation for critical thinking and creative discovery, is more important than ever. 11. The reference librarian is positioned where the library meets its users. He or she functions as the eyes and ears of the organization, taking the pulse of the library user-community and representing the institutional character of the library. As such, the reference librarian can be a vital consult in a variety of institutional decisions, including space planning, technical services and collection development. 12. The reference librarian, embedded in the university community, is positioned to manage library initiatives and ongoing projects. He or she can bring to his or her leadership role a grounded sense of how the teaching and research mission of the library can be improved. In turn, management experience benefits public service, by aligning problem solving techniques with systemic solutions and reinforcing the creative bond between librarian’s day-to-day work and the institution’s identity. 13. Reference librarians make the organization accountable to its public. In hearing complaints and praise about the library, in seeing research missions succeed or fail, the reference librarian not only gains real life perspective on how libraries are used, he or she is in the position to respond to the community the library is charged to serve. Without the personal embodied response of the reference librarian, the library becomes impersonal and disconnected from its community.


Preparing to Meet the Future of Reference Service  

Discusses the challenges facing reference service in the contemporary research library environment. Calls for rethinking reference as a cent...

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