The Changing Role of Reference Librarian

An original idea? That can’t be too hard. The library must be full of them. – Stephen Fry

In the Twitter Chat session this week #IFN614refchat, I suggested flippantly, that reference librarians might be labelled as iKnowitall. In researching information on current understanding of the term ‘reference’, the meaning is described by Valerie Gross as

  • An opinion of another in relation to character or ability
  • A note in a published work referring to the source of information
  • A mention of an occurrence or event
  • An act of referring

By way of contrast ‘research’ is described to mean

  • An inquiry
  • An investigation for facts
  • A systematic search for knowledge and information

So, the question is whether the term ‘reference’ is sending the right message. Shakespeare’s observation: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose – by any other name would smell as sweet” comes to mind. The term ‘reference’ is often misconstrued by library users who believe that it is only about traditional reference materials such as dictionaries, encyclopeadias, atlases, almanacs – not about finding the right book for each reader as is so succinctly described in Ranganthan’s five laws.

In the dynamic evolving environment of information organisation, management, access and retrieval it is really important for information professionals to review the position of ‘reference’ with a 360° perspective.   To do this, the generic view of a reference librarian and the associations commonly attributed to librarianship should be considered and compared to the reference librarians perspective of their role and contribution to community and the public perception of library services.

I agree with Gross, 2013, that the issue begins with language and can be addressed using the Three Pillar Philosophy, based on that which has been implemented at the Howard County Library with sensational outcomes of two and three times the foot traffic, circulation and engagement with the community. The three pillars of self-directed education, research assistance and instruction, and instructive and enlightening experiences combine to deliver education to the community.

The Howard County Library has introduced role descriptions for library staff referring to librarians as ‘Information Specialists’ and ‘Instruction & Research Specialists,’ encouraging staff to refer to ‘working in information’ rather than ‘working in reference’. After all, it’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.

The public perspective is that library services are out-dated and that information can be sourced online – so why have a library? From the patron’s perspective – what can the library give me that I cannot access online? From the funding perspective – is the library providing a return on investment?

Commercial and corporate environments create strategic marketing plans to survive and thrive – so why not use the same drivers for not for profit community organisations such as library services?

In an address to the American Library Association way back in 1999, Susan Palmer talked about the changing role of librarian.   Palmer’s observation of the reference librarian more as an instructor, information manager, mentor, administrator echo the sentiments of Gross that librarianship is an ever-changing role, gathering a diverse range of skills and responsibilities as the role evolves to meet the demands of internal and external stakeholders.