Are Reference Librarians Dead?

When I accepted my current position, Information Services Manager at AHML, I knew going in that there was some risk in linking my career with a traditional reference department. Ultimately, I decided to take the job in large part because of the challenge of helping to reshape reference in public libraries. During my interview, my soon-to-be supervisor and I spoke frankly about the current state of reference and the task of creating a new vision for information services at the library. I knew what I was coming into and I have to say that after being here a little under a year, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

So, when people talk about the death of reference, as Eli Neiburger recently did and has done in the past, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I understand the argument that reference is not what it used to be;  but then again, what in public libraries is? I also understand that having one’s job primarily consisting of staffing a public service desk waiting for that one decent, challenging question that stimulates the mind is not ideal for any professional librarian. Like many others, I’ve sat at public services desks answering a seemingly endless number of questions regarding the phone number of the local drug store, the call number for a particular book, and, yes, the location of the nearest restroom. But I’ve also spent a lot of time with talented, passionate librarians who are finding new ways to use their skills and talent to make a real impact in their communities.

Here’s the response I posted to the LJ article:

Anyone who has worked in public libraries in the past decade can’t argue that reference has changed dramatically. Is traditional reference, in the sense of someone sitting behind a desk all day long waiting for that rare juicy question, dead? Perhaps. Can reference librarians find a new purpose and way of making a difference in people’s lives? I sure hope so! In the short time I’ve worked in public libraries, I’ve seen reference librarians create a community-wide reading program, assist countless job seekers, teach local business owners how to use tools like Facebook pages and Google Places, create community websites, and empower people to get creative with digital media. As much as I agree with Eli’s statement that libraries need to invest more in geeks, I hope he agrees that librarians, many of whom have passionately served their local communities for years, can find new life.

Eli’s statements and presentations are great because they challenge people working in libraries to be better. I think reference librarians still have a lot to offer and can be part of this process. Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know and let’s talk about it.


  1. I’ve been hearing the cry of “The reference librarian is dead” since I started library school in 1994. Has it changed? Sure. Just about every profession does, but it’s far from dead.

    If I read the article correctly, he’s the head of IT at the Ann Arbor Public Library, right? Well, Ann Arbor is a small college town with a giant research university. Chances are, if I live in Ann Arbor and I have a serious research problem that requires searching databases, archives, etc., I’m not heading to the public library. Ann Arbor Public probably provides much different kinds of services than what a research library would. They don’t have to take on that role, as many public libraries do, because they share a town with one of the best public research libraries in the country.

    I work at a large public university, in a much larger city than Ann Arbor, but I still encounter these kind of patrons all the time. The local public libraries don’t have the resources they need, so they come to us.

    In addition, no disrespect intended towards IT people, but a lot of the ones I’ve worked with, not all, but many, seem to think that technology solves everything. They don’t really get the “personal interaction” thing that’s required to handle many research questions.


  2. Thanks for your comment, Rob. I actually worked at AADL for two years and I would say it is definitely not used as a research library by most, though I did have my fair share of extended reference inquiries at the main library. Still, I would say most public libraries are not “research libraries” and that’s okay with me. I think there are other ways librarians can help their communities and I guess that’s all I was trying to say in my post.


  3. Hey Rich, thanks for posting about this. My point is simply this: putting a degreed librarian on a public service desk at a public library is generally waste of money, time, & talent. Librarians should be building collections, making connections, developing products, and forming partnerships, not passively waiting for someone to come make use of their skills & experience, which at most public libraries, rarely happens.

    This isn’t about technology, and it’s not about librarianship. It’s about service and public finance. Every time I talk, I get the question, “but how can we pay for the geeks and their servers?” And my answer is to stop routinely staffing public desks with degreed librarians. A doctor doesn’t sit at the reception desk at the doctor’s office; an entire infrastructure is developed to make the most of their valuable time. We should be using Librarians the same way; behind the scenes, making things happen, not sitting on desk waiting for something to happen. Have a way for the desk staff to quickly escalate the rare real ref questions to a librarian wherever they are, and you retain the utilization of their skills & experience without tying them to a seat that needs a butt in it.

    I think the future of librarianship is bright. The challenge is to transition from a passive use case to an active one, and that can’t happen while librarians are still tied to 20th century service models. Demand for reference service at public libraries has collapsed; it’s time to shift that underutilized capacity to creating permanent value through content, context, collections and collaborations. Nobody does that better than Librarians.

    Use them wisely.


  4. I’m with you on this Richard. We have both worked with librarians who are amazing at finding people jobs, genealogy, building and running communities both online and off, etc. and a good portion of their day is helping people find Madea Goes to Jail. Nothing wrong with helping people find movies… but if I have somebody who is a specially talented I want them working on what helping the business find customers, a patron find out about various prescription drugs, engaging teens, and so on.

    As Eli says, use them wisely otherwise they may take their talents to South Beach.


  5. I agree with Eli to a point. The degreed librarians should be behind the scenes more often than they are on the desk. But I also think that having degreed librarians on the desk even for a few hours a week will give us insight to what our patrons need and what they’re looking for from their library. I helped a patron today find out where she can get help with her resume. She wanted someone to sit down with her and actually go through the writing process. I’m afraid if she had gone to a desk staffer, they might have just said “I don’t know.” I hope I’m wrong, but in my library, I get the feeling that would have been the overall response. I did a lot of digging for this patron, and found several resources. Would a non-degreed person have done the same? I don’t know.


  6. Eli, thanks for your reply. Like I said, I think you’re helping to challenge and refine what we’re all doing, especially in public libraries. I think we see eye to eye about utilizing talented people, no matter the position within an organization, in the best possible ways.

    Carrie, I think you raise a good point, but one that can be addressed with hiring the right people and training them well. There is something to be said for getting a feel for community needs by working at a public service desk, but I think this can also happen by getting out into the community and making connections with organizations, businesses, schools, and individual community members.


  7. The library system that I work at is in the middle of a process that gets the people who are at the public service desk up to speed on taking care of most of the queries such a desk receives, leaving and freeing up the librarians to do more program planning, community connections, and in-depth work that just can’t be accomplished. The results have been pretty good so far, and the librarians do take a stint here and there at the public service desk just to stay tuned in or to help out.

    We’re starting to reach out to audiences and people that we wouldn’t have been able to get access to in previous years, now that we’re shifting the burdens around and freeing up time to actively pursue things where people are, instead of sitting back and waiting for them to come to us. I think it’s going to be better for us all overall when everyone’s fully trained. About the only thing we’re worried about is that The Brass will decide, once all the desk staff are trained, that they don’t need as many librarians to provide good service and will start cutting positions, because The Economy Is Bad and People Hate Taxes, despite not having a clue what library service actually costs them in tax assessments.


  8. Rich–You’re absolutely right. Getting out in the community and making connections are other ways to get to know the community. Thanks for a thought-provoking blog post.


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