Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Wither Reference? Part 2: From Just-in-Case to Just-in-Time

Almost twelve years ago, I moved to Seattle and got a job with a strange little business located south of downtown. They did mail order, but their warehouse stock was tiny even though their catalog was huge. The catalog was only on the Web, even though the local library still offered telnet access to its catalog. There was no storefront, no printed catalog, and the business didn't take phone orders.

That business, of course, was Amazon.com.

These days, Amazon sells everything from books to bustiers, and has warehouses located all over the country, not to mention subsidiaries located all over the world. I haven't worked there in eight years, so I have no idea what their warehouse-stocking philosophy is. But in 1996, Jeff Bezos and company were leveraging the incredibly powerful idea of just-in-time delivery. They've made some missteps along the way, but have gotten things right enough that quite a few people have made quite a bit of money off of it.

What does this have to do with reference?

At my university, I do remote-desk hours: set up a laptop in a location outside the library on campus and provide reference service. A lot of libraries have been trying this, with varying degrees of success. So far, the one time I've gotten a lot of traffic was when a professor put my contact information in his syllabus, including my office hours, then gave his students an assignment that was beyond most of their library research skills. The following year, when the course came up again, I did a guest lecture instead covering the same material points. It would be interesting to compare the results on student assignments.

Now, obviously one factor at work here is promotion. But another is this notion of just in time: what you need, when you need it, where you need it. And in an increasingly connected world, "where" doesn't need to be physical.

This is important because the library as place is coming uncoupled from the library as a resource base. This turns the physical library into a place that serves multiple needs: the information commons at work. Which varies from campus to campus, but at my university, the library is the preferred study space for many students. It's comparatively quiet, even with the inevitable noise from the computer area on the first floor; it's open late (though not late enough, they tell us); and they can access online library resources as easily there as anywhere. More easily, perhaps; the library has wireless, though it's increasingly clear that it doesn't have enough power outlets to serve the demand from student laptops.

The reference desk is a quintessential just-in-case service, and the profession knows this. From Steven Bell's writings on the subject to the open discussion at Midwinter 2007, librarians are considering the idea that the reference desk is outmoded in our brave new just-in-time, wirelessly wired, increasingly connected world.

Is it?

I'm not convinced that anyone really knows the answer to that question, though we're all trying out alternatives to see what works. Chat reference, IM, giving out your cellphone number, remote-location reference, reference by appointment, and the rest: a lot of them are attempts to bring just-in-time into a traditionally just-in-case scenario. On the other hand, the librarian at the reference desk is there at the right time and in the right place for students who are working in the library and need reference assistance. And there are still quite a few of them.

What does just-in-time reference service look like? Is it a change in service, or a change in attitude?

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