May 13, 2007

the Future of Reference

A colleague (hi Terry!) asked me to speak on a panel in his class about the future of reference. I'm a poor prognosticator (tho' I like to say the word), but I have a few thoughts. Here's a bit of what I said in class:

Even before I talk about the future of reference, I have to comment on how I define "reference." When I think of "reference", I think of "reference SERVICE." I initially focused my thoughts only on service, but finally realized I should probably talk about other elements like search and resources. Always good to know one's own biases.

So, the four things I believe will affect the future of reference are:
- Service
- Search technologies
- the Reference Book
- Money

1. In terms of service, we need to be where the patrons are. This could mean more roving reference (even in a big library) where we go & find them and ask if they are finding what they need. This could (should) mean more technology such as IM, facebook, Skype, and text-messaging -- at least for those tech-savvy patrons. Probably we should work on getting more people to be tech-savvy, in terms of using online resources and communication technology, for those "connected but hassled" patrons.

This implies that reference librarians are still necessary -- and they DEFINITELY are. I taught a class last week in which one student said "I wish I'd known this before I graduated." Breaks my heart when they say that, because I know we can save them time AND help them be smarter about searching. Finding good material will not get easier anytime soon (despite my thoughts about #2), so we will continue to need reference librarians.

2. In terms of search, we MUST make it easier. Roy Tennant famously said "librarians like to search, everyone else likes to find." He also said "2 clicks 2 stuff" (see my blog entry). Two potential ways of making this easier for the non-tech savvy users:

2a. Federated search. This means searching more than one database / library resource at the same time. We can do this already with our EBSCO products, which is applicable if we need to search Communications & Mass Media Complete + PsycINFO at the same time. However, if we were researching the philosophy of mind, for instance, and wanted to search PsycINFO + Philosopher's Index together, we couldn't do that in my library, because we get those resouces from different vendors.

There are several companies which offer federated search products, but, imho, none is ready for prime time. Many technical, legal, and standards problems prevent aggregation of ALL databases into one search engine. And if they're not ALL going to be there, my feeling is we shouldn't do it. Here's why: if a major newspaper vendor is missing, for example, and we point students to our MegaOneSearch resource for newspapers which is all newspaper database sources EXCEPT the big one, then to do a comprehensive search patrons would have to search two sources anyway, and that defeats the purpose.

There's a philosophical question as well: does federated search "dumb" things down to such an extent that we are doing our patrons a disservice by teaching them to use a simple search for all databases rather than pointing them to the best database for their topic?

Finally, the federated search interface must be intuitive to use. I have seen products that confuse me -- and if I don't know what to do, a college freshperson, soccer mom, or the "Inexperienced Experimenter" will not, and will go back to Google.

2b. A different approach to the federated search problem is the "data silo + search + presentation" method adopted by such vendors as Ex Libris' Primo. Currently, if a patron wants to find books, articles, and archival material on his topic, he must search at least three different places, with varying interfaces, quirks, and search rules: the library's catalog (which I've taken to calling "Google for books"), a library database such as Academic Search Premier, and the library's digital archive or finding aids collection. This is so confusing for patrons that they'd rather search Google because it's "good enough."

The premise of Primo is that all data elements (catalog data, digital archives, aggregated data in a federated search product like MetaLib) can be "harvested" and stored in different "silos." Once harvested and "normalized" so that the disparate information has metadata in consistent fields, it can be searched simultaneously (see the Feb. 15, 2007 Library Journal article (Meta)search Like Google for more about this concept).

Finally, there is a dedicated public interface just for this application. The value to patrons is that the presentation layer is consistent for ALL resources within the library. AND the presentation layer is especially designed to be easy to use and highlight the metadata that we have all worked so hard to add to various records.

Two examples of beautiful, patron-oriented public interfaces are North Carolina State University's catalog (see results of a search for synesethesia -- note how smoothly it handled the typo) which is "fronted" by Endeca, and the Queens Public Library (see results of a search for visual perception), which is TLC's AquaBrowser. You can see how much easier this OPAC would be for "connected but hassled" users!

3. The reference book, one of my long-time library companions, is going by the wayside. It's heartbreaking but true. Fewer patrons come to the reference desk, fewer of them are willing to look at a book, and the majority of them are online wanting online resources. Given that, most of us must put our money in online resources. This is completely understandable, but it means that the intuitive-to-use reference book will go by the wayside and patrons will have to learn not only about their topic in an online reference work, they will also have to learn how to use the interface. There is some great reference content online, and while some interfaces are better than others, none is as intuitive as a book.

4. A huge element in the future of reference is money. Money for staff, money for cool products like federated search and Primo, and money for materials. Which sends me to my recent rant on marketing -- if we don't get people into the library, the folks who pay for our services (town hall, university presidents, school departments) will think that their constituents can use Google for everything & don't need libraries. We need to at least keep the $$ we have, or better yet, increase what we're pulling in and use it wisely.

So, in conclusion, here's the future of reference:
1. We still need reference librarians, but they should be where the patrons are, either physically or virtually.
2. We need to make search easier for patrons. Federated search & Primo (theoretically) will enable people to find stuff more quickly and easily.
3. Fewer reference books, more online reference materials. Hopefully easier to use (see #2).
4. Less money, fewer cool librarians, less cool stuff. Money properly allocated means good librarians & *useful* relevant resources for patrons.

It was a great discussion in class. Hopefully others will chime in?!


Anonymous said...

The Gale Virtual Reference Library provides the powerful content of both Thomson Gale imprints as well as 40(and growning) partner publishers to your library patrons. It places this content where your patrons are(online) and provides them access through direct links, your OPAC, as well as many other doorways - If you are a user of Infotrac it even intergrate your reference results with your periodical results. If you would like to take a look at the program I would be more than welcome to walk you through it....I believe it stops the perceived "death of reference" in it's tracks. If you or your readers are interested please contact me:

Brian Risse
Sales Director, Gale Virtual Reference Library

Hillary said...


My mind is too fried for me to leave much of a comment right now, but I wanted to say this: I am so glad you are teaching future librarians! Your comments resonate deeply with me. I hope library schools start teaching more about public relations and marketing because I think we need to "prove" ourselves more than ever. Keep up the good work!