June 24, 2005

My job in 10 years -- Reference

Reference service is here to stay. It will always be a core mission of academic libraries to help our patrons find the information they need to do their work. However, I believe the nature of the questions we get and how we deliver the answers will change quite radically.

There are a couple of factors at play here. First of all, will our patrons continue to believe that we can help them with anything? Our patrons will become increasingly comfortable with online tools, online tools will become increasingly comprehensive and comprehensible. Currently, we often see at the reference desk that students' confidence in their abilities to find information on the web lags quite a bit behind their actual ability. Will this gap continue as search tools get better or will they truly be much more successful in their self-directed information seeking behaviors? In other words, will they continue to need us? Actually, I think (hope) the answer is yes. Resources will continue to multiply, single purpose tools won't be able to keep up, relevance ranking will continue to be imperfect, integration of functionality and information from various sources into coherent documents will be a challenge. Questions will be harder and more challenging, but there will be questions. At the service point, we will still be able to help students navigate and integrate. (I think we're seeing a lot of this already -- it will only accelerate.)

Next, the continued importance of libraries as places on campus (and really, the continued importance of campuses as places to attend university). To the extent that we are still valued as places on campus to work, study and socialize, f2f reference will continue to be an important service. Whether we provide that service behind a desk, from our offices, roaming around a commons area, consulting in a group study room or from remote locations around campus such as dorms or academic departments, the f2f service will continue to be valuable to our patrons. Will in be closer to a consultants' role than a quick answer service? Probably. But the value of sitting down with someone and talking out their problem will continue to play an important role.

Is f2f the only way to deliver reference service? Of course not. There are already several alternatives to f2f reference, with phone, email and now chat reference. Chat reference is still in its infancy, with wonky software and a mixed overall experience. Its still slow and clunky, commonly with reference interactions for the simplest things stretching over 30 minutes as you and the patron multitask. Some places are moving to simple IM. Assuming phone reference won't go away and email will largely wither away, is what we currently have as VR the future or is it a blind alley, an embarrassing mistake that we'll all try and pretend didn't happen in 10 years. Probably both. What we currently offer will seem a bit misguided. But, the software will mature, browsers will become better able to handle the complex functionality and increased bandwidth will make video streaming possible. As online education becomes more popular, students will demand that online courses be richer and more varied than f2f courses, with better interaction on all levels with instructors and fellow students. Certainly interactions with research consultants (or whatever) can be part of that mix. Bizarrely, I can almost imagine that audio and video streaming technologies will make these online reference interactions strangely similar to sitting at the reference desk and having a student walk up with a question. You know, maybe with the way phone technology is maturing, phone reference and video reference will actually be the same thing too.

So, in 10 years, I will sit at a desk in a physical library and answer questions from patrons. I'll probably also roam around the library and perhaps have "office hours" some other place. Not any different than what is possible now. However, my virtual self will also be highly available in a variety of different ways which are not possible now. Are there any changes I can't currently imagine? I hope so.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

do you think the ref desk will still require librarians?