CLA 2008 Postscripts: What Trainers Might Consider on the Theme of Reference Services (Part 1 of 2)

Deputy State Librarian Stacey Aldrich and Metropolitan Cooperative Library System Executive Director Rosario Garza were not the only people talking about the future of reference when they offered a “Statewide Reference for Tomorrow” session during the California Library Association conference in San Jose a few days ago. Everyone seemed to have their own ideas of where libraries and reference are—or are not—going, and the opinions remain intriguing for those involved in training-teaching-learning.
Some, including Aldrich, suggest that the word “reference” needs to be replaced by more contemporary terminology promoting information retrieval. Others say that library staff members need to acknowledge that large numbers of library members and guests are fully capable of satisfying their information needs without assistance and have even come to the conclusion that it is a weird idea that they would go into a library to ask someone a question.
Yet another model, which is finding its way into academic libraries but not yet receiving much attention in public libraries, is the information commons where reference, collections, and technology come together in a very creative hybrid as described in works by Donald Beagle and others; examples here in the San Francisco Bay Area include the newly opened Learning Commons facility on the Santa Clara University campus. Additional resources are available on the California State Library website, including sections on statewide reference and how Californians are finding and using information.
While nothing ever remains the same, it is hard to agree with those at one extreme end of the conversation who believe that library reference is dead. Infopeople has consistently drawn library staff throughout the state to workshops including Mary Ross’s reference interview sessions, Joe Barker’s onsite and online reference classes, and Sarah Houghton-Jan’s online reference sources workshops. The Book a Librarian program which Marc Webb started at the San Francisco Public Library last year and which he is now continuing with Oakland Public Library is popular with library members and guests. And first-rate Library and Information Science programs such as the one offered through the University of North Texas work their students through incredible numbers of resources drawn from highly detailed lists of resources to prepare them for what they may face in the contemporary onsite-online library workplace where reference questions are increasingly complex and challenging.
All of this provides tremendous food for thought for anyone organizing library staff training programs designed to help employees meet the challenges of the contemporary workplace. We have no disagreements about the need for customer service sessions, management and leadership training, and computer software and technology updates so we are not left behind by the rapid pace of change. But when it comes to what we need to know about reference and information retrieval, we are confronted with basic issues which reach the heart of what it is that libraries do and are expected to do to meet the needs of the millions of people who still turn to them for service.
Next: Thoughts From a Library of Congress Reference Librarian