Friday, August 26, 2016

Why Reference Matters

More from Dave Tyckoson, a past-President of the Reference and User Services Association {RUSA} division of the American Library Association, and now associate dean of the Henry Madden Library at California State University - Fresno  ...

 Here are some selections from a column that he wrote in Booklist back in 2014:

“Why do we still need reference librarians when we have Wikipedia/Google/Internet/[fill in the blank]?”

It’s the question that we have all heard before in one variation or another. After all, we live in a world in which every individual has instant access to more information than at any previous time in human history. With any networked device, we can all find information, take classes, make purchases, listen to music, watch videos, get directions, see what our friends are doing, and find out about just about anything. In this connected world, why do we need libraries—or reference librarians?

It’s a valid, but naive, question. The popular image of the reference librarian is of someone who dispenses answers. The question assumes that what librarians do is dispense facts. Do you need to find a biography of Einstein? The dates of the Norman invasion? The distance to the closest star? The names of the seven dwarfs? You used to ask a reference librarian. But with the Internet, people no longer need to ask those questions—they can find that information themselves. So they naively make the assumption that reference librarians are no longer needed.
The problem with the question is that it misses the more subtle—and more important—nature of libraries and reference service. Yes, we sometimes give out factual answers. But most of the time, the questions that we get have no single answer. Is global warming real? Does listening to music while asleep improve memory skills when awake? Do diet soft drinks increase a risk of cancer? Are the beaches nicer in the Caribbean or in Hawaii? We help our users with many more of those kinds of questions than we do for factual ones—and we always have. Finding facts is easy—answering complex questions is difficult. And it is for those complex questions that reference librarians are needed...
... But the biggest impact of the reference librarian—and of the library—is on the community. Every library is designed to serve a specific community. Public libraries serve the people of a specific city or county. Academic libraries serve the faculty, staff, and students of a specific college or university. School libraries serve the students and teachers of a specific school. Medical libraries serve doctors, nurses, and patients at a specific hospital. Law libraries serve the attorneys and staff of a specific law firm. Each library is designed to add value to the specific community that it serves.

... Reference librarians serve as advisors, recommending the best information sources for each community member. Reference librarians serve as searchers, using specialized skills to retrieve the best information from the overwhelming number of documents available. Reference librarians serve as evaluators, identifying which sources are credible and which are not. And reference librarians serve as instructors, teaching community members skills to make them information independent.

The library—and the reference librarian—exists to serve the community. By interacting with reference librarians, community members become more information literate. And when a community is composed of members with a higher degree of information literacy, it becomes a better community. Libraries and reference librarians help the community learn and grow. Libraries and reference librarians help the community survive. Communities become better places when libraries and reference librarians are part of them. And that is why we still need reference librarians."

This does not diminish, in any way, the importance of other library staff. We all play a part in providing library services, and we are all here to help our communities in any way that we can.
All of our jobs are not glamorous. We check out books, maintain the stacks, request materials from other libraries. We select books, AV materials, online databases, and work with faculty to make sure the collection is current and relevant. We catalog and prepare new materials for circulation, and maintain records in our catalog to help you find what you are looking for there. We try our best to help get you around campus and to to help you get your papers printed, direct you to assistance with Canvas or computer problems, or connect you with your counselor.  And we work together as a team to see that you have your information needs addressed. We get it right more often than we don't - but that will never stop us from looking for ways to do it better. And we are going to ask you for your help from time to time as we evaluate resources or services to help us do that.

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