Defining reference

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 – 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?

5 thoughts on “Defining reference

  1. Today at a meeting with some designer-developer types, the word “story” kept coming up. I’m not sure if I really understood the term in context or where it came from, but it struck a few chords, and anyway, I had been thinking about your post.

    I talked with them about how the current design of the L-net website forces patrons to choose up front which service they want to use without really knowing anything about their choices.

    One example is the patron who clicks on ‘Ask a librarian’ expecting to talk about their overdue books and chats with someone across the country with no access to their patron account.

    I’ve thought about this problem before and wondered if better graphic design could help people make the best possible choice about which of our services to use in which situation.

    The way the developer-designers put it, we were asking people to abandon their own stories to fit themselves briefly into the library’s.

    A mockup ( I made a while ago is a little better because it lets patrons click around and experiment a little before they commit to anything, but it is still the library’s story.

    Beyond 2.0-ing reference into self-service tools and answering communities, I think it is worthwhile to consider abandoning not just control, but also the notion that people have “information needs” and (especially) “questions” – they have stories, and we want libraries to be a part of those stories.

    So, um, yeah, that’s as far as I’ve gotten.

  2. I like the phrase information consultation because it highlights the interaction between patron (why this term?) and librarian – between a person who wants to know and a person who is has information searching skills and experience, but luckily doesn’t have to know everything! But as you and I have talked, I don’t see as much “wanting to know” among students as I would like. In general, it’s not that they WANT to know, but that they need some info for a project. Also, they are maybe not used to the consultation / collaborative aspect of library reference – maybe they see librarians the way they see teachers – someone who knows a lot and tells you what you need and what to do, not a coach or ally. We writing instructors may have a different relationship with students (and with librarians) than professors in content fields (not that there isn’t content in writing). And in writing class it is easier to give up some control – but then we have university outcomes to meet as well.

  3. Caleb – wow, yeah, this strikes a lot of chords. I’ve been thinking some about storytelling in a more rhetorical context lately, which is a little off to the side but I think it’s sparking some ideas here.

    I think this is helping me articulate one of the tensions I feel a lot – the idea of an imposed “information need” or question. Sara gets at this a little bit above.

    When I first read this I thought, “well I feel like these students do have an information need, do they have a story?” But yes, of course they do have a story — it’s just not their story alone. They’re bringing their story, their teacher’s story, to a certain extent even the institution’s story in with them. And they don’t always know or fully understand all of those stories themselves. So navigating all of that is really complex, for us and for them. Especially since, as you say, we’re not really set up to interact with their stories on their terms.

    Now I have no idea what this adds or not to the conversation – but I’m enjoying thinking about it. I think the idea of “making the library a part of that story” might be a helpful way to start thinking about it. Thanks again.

  4. I think the ‘story’ thing is a marketing idea and we’ll have to hit ABI Inform or something to figure out how much hooey it is and how much it makes sense to apply to reference and libraries.

    Maybe all it’s saying is that we shouldn’t be offering our tools and services so much as solutions to problems – “Find Books & Articles” instead of “Library Catalog” on the OSU library website, for example. Or maybe it’s more.

    What bothers me most about the /old/ RUSA definition is that it sets up reference as an activity undertaken only by library staff and only in a library setting. Providing information outside of libraries is not reference. Answers from friends or non-librarian strangers are not

    I do not agree.

    The idea of reference-only-in-libraries is also specifically included in the new definition of ‘reference transaction’, and I think the sentiment lingers in the one for ‘reference work’. We draw a circle around ourselves (or build a desk) and say everything inside is reference and everything outside is not.

    Joe Janes writes about the ease of ready reference on the web, “This all reinforces the notion that reference librarianship ought to stop chasing ready reference and move towards a more efficient application of our unique skills, talents, perspectives, training and experience. Perhaps we should declare victory and move on.”

    But I think very few libraries are willing to move on, and it’s not just because we want to hold onto our salaries and roles as gatekeepers and authorities.

    No, reference services are essential to every library’s mission. There’s no taxonomy or search algorithm that is going to work for every person in every situation, and the easier our tools are to use, the more people will use them and have “questions”.

    As Pew, etc recently reported/, information glut drives an information hunger (and now I have to bone up on marketing /and/ economics).

    I’d like to try to make the circle bigger and take advantage of that hunger to position libraries as important information providers in our communities. And all that led me to try to think beyond “questions” and “information needs”.

    Thanks for writing long and thought-provoking posts and actually replying to comments! I wrote most of all this last night and was too shy to post something really long, but now it’s too late.


  5. Well, marketers are notorious for simplifying complex ideas from elsewhere and applying them to business-doing – it might be hooey here, but I think the concept of the story has a deeper meaning than the marketers give it, and it’s still powerful.

    I agree with everything here so that if I start writing it’s going to end up being something 3 times longer than this that doesn’t say anything more than “I agree!” so I’m just going to pull out my favorite bit — the easier our tools are to use, the more people will use them and have “questions”

    Yes, a thousand times yes – because what we’re still doing here is supporting learning and that’s how learning happens. And it doesn’t happen in a top-down, unidirectional way — your image of the circle is probably a better way of articulating that. It doesn’t just happen within the circle.

    And I agree that we’re not hanging on to things just because we want to keep our jobs and because we want to be authorities or gatekeepers, but I also think we haven’t figured out how to articulate or demonstrate (or even operate as if we understand) why we’re important if we can’t track the “information need being met” back to an observable interaction with a librarian. We have to get beyond that – it suggests if those observable, countable interactions aren’t happening we’re not important. Which isn’t the case for all of the reasons you talk about so well.

    And we’re so not alone here. Shaun thought he couldn’t understand this post because it was too library geeky, but it’s really about the same kinds of how to assess learning and impact on learning questions we’ve been talking about lately. If you break open the circle around the classroom and the learning interactions that go on there you have the chance of really measuring student learning in college in all of its complexity – but our structures, our ways of giving credit, and even our ways of thinking about what we do aren’t really set up to handle that.

    But that complexity is how learning happens, and we have to figure out a way to articulate why we’re important within it – absolutely. Thanks for helping me make that connection. Now I have to go tell Shaun he was wrong.

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