Reference Beyond Recognition

On Life Support, but Not Dead Yet! Revitalizing Reference for the 21st Century, presented at PLA on Thursday evening, drew a standing-room-only crowd at the Philadelphia Convention Center. They weren’t disappointed. Attendees heard quick-fire presentations from Jason Kuhl, library operations director, Arlington Heights Memorial Library, IL; Richard Kong, that library’s information services manager; and Celeste Choate, associate director of services, collections and access, Ann Arbor District Library, MI. The three discussed how their libraries have been transformed by unorthodox approaches to reference‚ some of which didn’t cost much but greatly increased the number of reference questions answered.

Kuhl explained that the Arlington Heights library knew that a change was necessary when a review of statistics from the past ten years showed an 85% drop in the number of reference questions answered, and that 94% of the reference collection was never used. To those who claim that more marketing will bring the statistics back up, Kuhl counters that that’s a waste of time, pointing out that we were doing well and didn’t do anything different. That’s the problem.

Changes big and small
The library’s answer? At first, tweaks. A wall blocking visual access to the reference area was taken down, a change that led many patrons to comment that they didn’t even know that area was back there. In a second step, remote reference‚ via phone, twitter, instant message, etc.‚ was moved behind the scenes, so that staff on the public reference desk could concentrate on answering questions from patrons who were present in the library. This population was sometimes underserved before, and the change led to an immediate 39 percent increase in the number of reference questions answered. The increase was across the board, as staff in the public area could help visitors to the branch more easily while others could concentrate on, for example, answering the phone. Kuhl emphasized that the improvements in service were done by staff essentially doing what they always had, just not all at the same time.

Other changes involved new services. The staff began to offer what Kuhl termed hyper-local reference, offering information relevant only to the immediate community. Urging attendees to be ahead of the need, he explained that Arlington Heights set up a desk labeled, Start Your Job Search Here, where patrons can, for example, have their resumes reviewed by local business leaders. The small business librarian is now booked weeks in advance. Involving the community, says Kuhl, creates a team who will be there when the library needs it.

Specialists wanted
I don’t feel like throwing in the towel, said Richard Kong, one of LJ’s 2012 Movers and Shakers, who got nods of agreement from the crowd when he explained that specialization is essential in today’s libraries. Generalists are no longer needed, he said, adding, Anyone who can do a Google search is a generalist. Echoing Kuhl, Kong urged those present to consider providing local services, describing local wikis such as DavisWiki, a service run by residents of Davis, CA. The wiki, he clarified, should be hosted by the library but not controlled by it‚ the content is up to the local community.

Kong also reminded librarians to get out there, stating that, when you think about police officers, you don’t imagine them behind a desk, though some of them do paperwork. Why do people think of librarians behind desks? Part of this change involves innovative programming, he said, which he considers a form of reference, mentioning such activities as the library’s Urban Worm Girl composting program.

Farewell to databases?
Choate, the last presenter, was perhaps the most controversial. Most of the reference questions asked at Ann Arbor District library, she explained, don’t require an MLS to answer. For that reason, the library has made a dramatic change: specially hired Information Desk Clerks now staff what was formerly called the reference desk, and field most questions, referring hard-to-answer queries to librarians. The new staff members are very busy; one measure of their success is that they place more than half of all the library’s materials holds.

While this shift was difficult for staff at first (and some patrons found it insulting), in the end, librarians came to enjoy the freedom to interact with the community in new ways. Technology has been an important enabler of the switch: all staff has access to an Internet relay channel, a chat forum on which they can post stumpers for other staff to answer. The public can also post questions on the library’s website to be answered publicly. And the staff is required to blog. This year, the blog posts will push the library’s databases, which are underused, and if usage doesn’t go up after that, says Choate, they’re gone.

Henrietta Verma About Henrietta Verma

Henrietta Verma is Senior Editorial Communications Specialist at NISO, the National Information Standards Organization, Baltimore, and was formerly the reviews editor at Library Journal.