Friday, March 7, 2008

Wither Reference...or Reference Renaissance?

For at least the past couple of years, discussion and debate about whether reference is dead have garnered high profiles at conferences, in the literature, and in the blogosphere. So conferences like Reference Renaissance (built on the remains of Virtual Reference Desk) are perhaps inevitable.

This is timely, because the question of what it means to provide reference service, and how best to do it, has been a topic of ongoing discussion in my library. We're not sure whether any of us are going to this conference, yet, but we're interested to see what comes out of it.

And it seems to me that the question all along, not just at my library but at libraries in general, hasn't been whether reference is dead, but whether and how it must change in the changing library landscape. Personally I think that if your library is still a place, then there's still a place in it for reference, and that in fact that place should be central.

Why? Because marginalizing reference encourages the notion that librarians are not useful in the age of instant information, when we all know that this isn't true: that the "Google generation" is a myth, that the most easily accessible information isn't always the best, and that however we might wish it were otherwise, the OPAC still sucks, third-party database interfaces still can't be customized to individual library environments, and those students working on a history project still aren't going to walk ten feet to the stacks if it seems as though the answer might swim to the surface of just one more Web search.

What this really involves is identifying reference's core values, and fulfilling those. It involves, yes, PR, marketing, and outreach. It involves not intruding on patron spheres, but inviting them into ours. It also involves embracing information technology, but not at the expense of these other, I submit more important, aspects of the issue. The trouble with anything shiny and new is that it tends to present itself as the solution to something that isn't necessarily a problem--or, if it is a problem (as declining reference desk counts arguably are), not necessarily the right solution (is building a virtual reference desk in Second Life going to fix that? Really?).

So maybe "Renaissance" is the right term. After all, one of the core elements of the Renaissance was the rediscovery of Classical ideas. What are the classical ideas of reference, and how can we best continue to make them a reality? That's the question we should be asking.

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