For Future Reference

In keeping with the theme of LIS curriculum assessment, I decided to pose another question that invariably surfaces whenever I talk with people about requisite and elective course offerings. Should library schools still require a reference course?

Last time I wrote on the subject, I suggested that LIS programs actually require two courses in practical reference. For instance, one course might serve as an overview of electronic reference–comparative database analysis, library-vendor relationships, Internet research, database user instruction, etc. The second requisite course might be an advanced version of the first, an exploration of metadata and retrieval methods, or perhaps a choice among content areas, i.e., sciences, business and law, humanities. This second course may also be writing-intensive, depending upon the expertise of the instructor. Couldn’t hurt, right?

However, there is increasing sentiment in the field that the work of the reference librarian as we know it has changed so significantly that new LIS students should not be required to take a course entirely specific to reference resources. That’s a can of worms I really didn’t want to open in a post about curricula, but I’m not sure we can have a satisfying discussion without a cursory glance at the issue. After all, what greater knowledge base does the emergent librarian bring to the profession than the knowledge base formed in the classroom?

I would not agree that the Internet has altogether obviated the need of reference librarians who actually perform reference. As long as K-12 and college students still use their school libraries for research, the functions of many school and academic reference librarians should remain relatively traditional. And while it’s true that traditional reference in public libraries has been largely supplanted by Internet searching, public librarians still serve multi-age students, and new librarians will have to be versed in information resources of all types and formats. All library professionals, whatever their titles may be, should be conscious of web research ethics and capable of bibliographic assistance.

True that the job description for Reference Librarian is changing in many places, particularly in public libraries where the Internet now rules for the casual information seeker. Many new reference librarians are expected to be not only materials curators, but also content creators. In many libraries, reference librarians are being replaced by people with practice in web design and systems management and varied advanced computer savvy. Others are heavily involved in public relations and marketing, building partnerships and promoting library programs and services in both the physical and online communities.

Yet these changes don’t alter the fact that people still use libraries to seek information. Users come in many different ages, levels of expertise, communicative capabilities, and other demographics. Each have their individual needs for research assistance, just like always, and not everyone can properly serve their interests on the web.

Consider the angles: changes in user expertise, quality of web information vs. quality of database information, changing roles of LIS professionals, etc. What are your thoughts on current modes of reference instruction? How can library schools effectively modify curricula to better serve future professionals?

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About Steven V. Kaszynski
librarian, editor, contributor

4 Responses to For Future Reference

  1. Thanks for posting about this, Steven. I am looking forward to the conversation. I currently work with college students, and they often request my help not just for finding library materials and searching databases, but also for searching the web.

    If the course/s are as you describe, I think that a reference course would be beneficial to almost all librarians. It/they would highlight how information is organized, accessed, used, etc., knowledge of which cannot be a detriment to any information professional. Whether or not to require it, I’m not so sure.

    The reference class I took (not required) was of a more traditional bend, and honestly, I don’t think I got much out of it. I would have been happier if we had been required to work at an actual reference desk. I am definitely a hands-on learner, and I need real situations to be able to completely process anything I read or discuss.

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  3. In my reference course I found it useful that we did actual practice reference interviews in class. A person asked a somewhat vague question and then we had to get at what they were really looking for (the question behind the question). The navigation of the actual reference interview is an important part of serving patrons.

    I also think that more technology skills are required for reference librarians today. Like you said, reference librarians are doing more content creation and curation and that requires some level of technical skill. Reference librarians should have the ability to create tools and guides to make things easier to find for their users.

    • We did those, too, Andy. I think that’s still a fairly common interactive practice in intro reference courses. The tech element reaches so much farther than reference. Library schools that haven’t yet restructured their tech application instruction will have to get on top of it.

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