Reforming or rejecting the reference desk: conflict and continuity in the concept of reference.

Author:Nolen, David S.


At the 2007 ACRL National Conference in Baltimore, Maryland, perhaps no session generated more heated debate than one titled "The Reference Question--Where Has Reference Been? Where Is Reference Going?" The presenters--James Rettig, Jerry Campbell, William Miller, and Brian Mathews--offered their thoughts on reference, and then engaged the audience in a lively discussion. The presenters asked very pointed questions about the viability of "traditional" reference service based at the reference desk, particularly in an increasingly digital world. Several members of the audience spoke up to challenge the panel's perspectives and affirm the value of face-to-face, desk-based services. Carlson (2007) described the session as a clash between two competing visions of reference services. One vision of reference asserts that the era of the reference desk has ended, and that reference services need to be online or else risk being left behind. The other perspective champions face-to-face service, centered on the reference desk, and how it remains a key component of reference service, even in the 21st century.

This article seeks to challenge the assertion that there are two camps with diametrically opposed views of reference, and trace the history of this discussion through the examination of the published literature. Although a number of articles over the years have identified themselves as anti-or proreference desk, a careful analysis of the literature reveals that many articles affirm the value of humanmediated reference that the earliest description of the reference ideal put forth. The key differences that can be seen in the literature center on the methods of reference service delivery, rather than on dramatically different ideas of what reference should be. Only three of the anti-reference desk articles cited here actually attempt to challenge the value of human interaction, and these will be examined in greater detail. This paper begins with a description of the origins of the traditional vision of reference, and then seeks to describe the origins of the current debate, which can be found in the reference reform movement. Through an analysis of the articles that emerged from the reference reform period, this paper demonstrates how much these pro- and anti-reference desk articles actually agree in their vision of reference, even as their methods for carrying it out may be somewhat different. Finally, the articles that critique the idea of human-mediated reference can be examined more closely, with special attention to the alternatives that they present.

Traditional Vision of Reference

No more complete definition of the concept of "traditional" reference can be found than the one in Samuel Green's work "Personal Relations between Librarians and Readers" from 1876. Green began his famous work with a seemingly contemporary account of what has come to be called library anxiety. He explained that many patrons entering a library will experience a certain degree of anxiety, and that librarians need to coax them to "say freely what they want" (p. 74). Green went on to give a variety of examples of the types of questions that a librarian working with patrons might encounter, and then he began to discuss the four key benefits that should result from librarians interacting with the public. The first that he listed is effective recommendation of resources, which stems from the cultivation of approachability by the librarian. The second is the librarian's ability to use reference questions to inform collection development. The effective marketing of the library to the community is the third element that emerges from interacting with patrons. Finally, the librarian has opportunities to improve the reading preferences of their patrons. In addition, he described traits that he considered vital for librarians interacting with the public, such as diligence and persistence in addressing patron questions. He encouraged librarians to embrace personalized customer service. Green admonished his fellow librarians to "Respect reticence," while being careful "not to make inquirers dependent" (p. 80).

Green's 1876 article provides a vision of reference service that allows modern librarians to distill a comprehensive service mission from it. By examining Green's original statements, made in the context of a computer-less world and without the infrastructure of modern communications technology, it is possible see just how pertinent his suggestions and conclusions remain, because they go beyond the methodology. His descriptive portrait of successful reference is not bound by any particular methods, but instead transcends modes of service delivery. The key component that he assumes in this vision of reference is that human-to-human interaction is a strength of reference, and that has been a defining factor in reference services throughout the years that followed the publication of Green's work.

Historical Context

In just over one hundred years after the publication of Green's foundational statement of what reference should look like, the library and the world around it had changed dramatically. Throughout that time, reference librarians questioned and examined their work and the services they provide, reaching conclusions that have been beneficial for the profession and library users (Palmer, 1999). However, as Carlin (2007) has noted, the increased pace of technological change and the accompanying changes in user expectations beginning in the 1980s ushered in another line of self-analysis, with librarians more openly critiquing and questioning time-honored modes of service. An early contribution to this strand of critical literature was Miller's 1984 article "What's Wrong with Reference?" It suggested that reference services were in need of review, emphasizing the diminishing quality and effectiveness of reference as librarians became victims of their own success. Even as demand for reference services increased, librarians began developing new services and looking for ways to market them. In Miller's assessment, the long-standing strengths in what he termed "traditional services" were in decline as new services were added and the burdens of these new services on librarians were not recognized. As Carlin (2007) has observed, this work became the catalyst for numerous studies and discussions about how to change reference for the better, or what Tyckoson (1999) termed the "reference-reform movement" (p. 57).

From these reform efforts came a variety of perspectives on how reference service should be reconfigured. Many of the reform articles made a direct declaration either in favor of or against the reference desk itself, lending credence to the idea that there really are two separate visions of reference that stand in opposition. However, upon closer examination it becomes evident that almost all of these articles attempt to address the question of the reference desk in terms of reference methodology. From this review of the literature, the compatibility of many of these reform recommendations with Green's original vision becomes clear. A few of those articles that critique the idea of the reference desk put forth a competing vision of reference that challenges the traditional notion, and this will be addressed as well.

Eliminating the Reference Desk

One of the broad perspectives that emerged from this period of "reference reform" was that of eliminating the reference desk. A number of articles boldly proclaimed some version of the idea that...

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