Reference is Dead, Long Live the Enabler

At the time of writing this blog post, I’ve read two articles on the death of reference. The first was called “Is Reference Service Dead?” by Mathew Ciszek and the second was by Michael Stephens and it was called “Stuck in the Past.” Even I wrote a reference is dead blog post once many years and two other blogs ago. So, if reference is so dead, and it’s been written about as long as I can remember, why are we still talking about it? I think there are four choices.

1) It’s not dead
2) We haven’t come up with something better
3) Folks refuse to let it die
4) Students in Library School who think it’s something new to write about

Here is where I tell you which one of the four that I think is true. The truth is, I don’t know. I’m pretty sure that it’s a little of all four but my thought is that mostly its number two. I think there is something better than reference services and it ties into a future post that I’m working on. But, here is the reference version of that future blog post.

Eli Neiburger of the Ann Arbor Library District argues that armed with Google and an internet connection, the need for reference librarians has diminished. “Travel agents were outmoded because people felt they had better access to the information than they could get from the travel agents”, he said, and just as travel agents have become a thing of the past, so will the anachronistic reference librarian. With everything on Google, who needs them? (from Ciszek’s blog)

My thought is, he’s right! Who does need them? Lonely seniors and folks who can’t or don’t know how to access Google might need them but for the general public, the crap they dreg off the bottom of the information sewer on Google is good enough for them. Even though it might be wrong, or poorly written (like this blog), or out-of-date, or an ad for a guaranteed weight loss solution, they are satisfied with what they now “know.” Really, and I hate to break this to folks, but it’s all about perception. If the perceive that they have what they need, then that’s all it takes.

I’ll add in as a side note, that I do wholeheartedly disagree about the whole IT hiring frenzy thing though

But don’t worry; I’m not about complaining I’m about answers and solutions. So, here is my solution -

Reference is dead, long live the enabler.

Before I get more into my thoughts here, I can’t even begin to tell you how important it is for librarians to watch this video. So please, I’m begging you to watch it. I blogged about it once before, but here it is again.


So if we don’t have reference as a core service, then what do we have? We have the ability to enable people to live more fulfilled lives. We can do this by providing answers (some forms of reference), materials for better lives (more extensive collections like guitars, tools, seeds, gaming, augmented reality), a third place (a quiet work or relaxation place away from kids and husbands and wives), and a place to learn with the resources they need to learn (isn’t this really what we are about at the end of the day?). Hey Michael, notice I didn’t mention books?

What I’m saying here in a round and about way, is that we need to continue what libraries have always been, and that is to be enablers to those who want to learn and provide the resources that enable our communities to learn. It’s not reference, its enabling our patrons to live more fulfilling lives. After all… By answering reference questions wasn’t that the real goal anyway?


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About pcsweeney

Currently, I'm the Branch Manager of the East Palo Alto Library in California. If you find yourself to be extremely bored (and would like to be more bored) you can find all of my internet mind droppings about libraries by googling pcsweeney.
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3 Responses to Reference is Dead, Long Live the Enabler

  1. Eileen says:

    Good stuff, Patrick! can’t wait to see how your thoughts evolve!

  2. Pingback: Friday Reads – Challenges Editon « Matt Phillips

  3. Pingback: Changing Roles: Dinosaur Steps « the Go Librarians

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