I was thinking about Desk Set the other day – how Bunny and her team answered their phone at Not-NBC (or ABC, or CBS) “reference department” and how everyone seemed to know what that meant. It made me wonder – do they now? We keep hearing that no one knows what terms like “reference” and “circulation” and “interlibrary loan” mean now, how did they know these things back then? Of course, the kind of reference going on in Desk Set was pretty particular — you have a question and I’ll find the fact that answers it for you. We don’t do that kind of reference very much around here, and I expect there are a lot of people spending a lot of time at reference desks who aren’t doing that kind of reference very much where they are, either.
Caleb posted this note on del.icio.us – that RUSA adopted a new definition of reference after Midwinter, based in part on feedback gathered on the RUSA blog the previous few months. I missed that, but went back and caught up on some of it this morning. The issues seem to be these – that we need a standard definition of “reference transactions” since we have to report those out and a standard definitions allow for meaningful comparison across institutions. And that libraries have changed, so the previous definition, adopted in 1984, wasn’t capturing enough about what goes on in libraries now.
The old definition was simple:
An information contact that involves the use, recommendation, interpretation, or instruction in the use of one or more information sources, or knowledge of such sources, by a member of the reference or information staff.
The biggest change between the new definition and the old is that the new one adds another category – “reference work,” distinct from “reference transactions” to capture more of what goes on in libraries today:
Reference work includes reference transactions and other activities that involve the creation, management, and assessment of information or research resources, tools and services.
The definition of Reference transactions is substantially similar, with two major changes. The addition of the word “consultations” created quite a bit of discussion on the RUSA blog. The resulting langauge looks like this:
Reference transactions are information consultations in which library staff recommend, interpet, evaluate and/or use information resources to help others meet particular information needs.
They also added some language about what should not be treated as reference transactions: namely, formal instruction sessions, or answers to directional or policy queries.
I like the addition of “reference work” – given how much reference work/ research consultations/ research and development goes on around here, the transactions alone are only part of the picture. I found myself nodding and recognizing these things in these definitions.
I’m wondering, though, if there isn’t something missing. Like lots of us, I spend some time thinking about where things are going in library public services and I’m not sure I see changes in these definitions that so much reflect where reference is going so much as they reflect where reference has been for a long time. I mean, I’m pretty sure most of what is captured by that “reference work” definition has been going on in the 20 years since 1984 – it’s great that that’s being recognized, but is that what is going to take reference forward? That I don’t know.
My frames of references are emerging technologies/ web stuff and teaching and learning stuff – and they have something in common that I’m not seeing here. And that’s the idea that reference services needs to think about giving up some control. What is being described in both of these definitions is very top-down, with information (at least with reference information) only traveling in one direction. And if the main goal is counting and comparing statistics then I can see the why of that, but at the same time I wonder how long reference can continue to hold onto control of what reference is so tightly.
One of the dominant themes of web 2.0 is that the users take some control of the web – whether it’s in contributing content, or in pulling just the content that they want to together, the developers and content providers can’t control how users interact with, use or encounter their content. That’s kind of a given. And the benefits to users taking some of that control are clear for many reasons, including rich, dynamic content that stays fresh.
The same theme appears in education. In fact, I just spent a couple of hours talking to the director of our Center for Teaching and Learning about encouraging exploration and discovery-based learning in large classes and the question of how to support faculty who want to give up some control of class content in this way was a dominant theme. And that’s nothing new – it’s even in the language that we use to talk about active learning or the pedagogies of engagement — the whole shift from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side” thing. That’s all about giving up control.
And around the library – giving up control is a constant theme. When we talk about library instruction it’s definitely a theme. Don’t worry about coverage, make sure you do active things, encourage deep learning – that’s the watchword for what we do today. And when we talk about new ways of using and organizing information on the web we talk about the same things — when we think about the benefits of folksonomy and tagging we’re asking catalogers to give up some control as well. When we use widgets and 2.0 tools on our websites we’re giving some control of that space to our users. And speaking of space – when we talk about our libraries as dynamic learning spaces, and we put our furniture on wheels, we’re giving students control of the physical spaces as well.
So how does reference get in on this game? Do you see reference giving up control? People who work with me have heard some of this before in my reactions to this panel at last year’s ACRL conference. I went hoping to hear some of these things addressed, and mainly got a lot of talk about how people wanted stuff on the web all the time, and how we’d be working on the web instead of at the desk. I think there were a lot of reasons for this, for one, the panel was updating an earlier conversation using some of the same people – even though those people had moved on and weren’t doing reference any more.
I feel a little bad bringing up this panel, because the reaction afterwards was kind of negative, but focused on some very different things than I’m focusing on here. So I’m thinking that there might be too much baggage for this to be a good addition to this post, but I’m going to leave it in because it was this panel that really got me thinking about these issues of control. Just be aware that I’m not talking here about whether librarians are at the desk, on SecondLife or in Facebook. That’s not the piece I came away thinking about.
Because I don’t think the where is really the question. Basically, I came away feeling that I had heard a lot of stuff about moving reference online – as if that change of venue was the end of the story. And that disappointed me because it felt like e-learning conversations from the late 90′s or so, really old-school and not very radical. And I wasn’t sure why — Brian Matthews, linked above, was the only panelist to really focus on the how and the what about the web (and probably not surprisingly, he was the one I remember being actively engaged in reference work now) but even he basically described fairly controlled, top-down reference transactions that just happened to take place on the web.
(And this is someone who definitely has been doing other stuff as well — I couldn’t decide which event to link to, so I’m just linking to the whole tag)
So yes, I don’t think it’s the where. I think it’s the how – and to a real extent it is also the what, as in what reference services are. And that’s what brings me back to the definitions above. In all of those other ways, we’re increasingly seeing value in letting our users, our students, and perfect strangers on the Internet, take some control over things. Control over what they learn in class, what a library space is, what belongs on a webpage, and so on. In some cases, these questions of control are fairly profound – giving up control over what a thing IS as well as how it’s done. So what about reference? How do we give up some of the control that is obvious throughout those definitions above to our users? How do we let them, in part, define what reference service means to them?
Unfortunately, Michael Buckland’s is the only talk not linked from this conference – because it sounds like he’s getting at these same questions. And being Michael Buckland (and Kimberley Carl too), he probably had a lot more to say in the way of answers than I do. I do think that the idea of self-service reference fits in here. And I suspect that reference 2.0 will also involve some aspect of our users serving each other – doing reference for each other – providing answers and resources for each other.
But that’s as far as I’ve gotten – any ideas?