Changing Roles: Dinosaur Steps

In a recent web chat, I fielded a compelling question from a librarian working at a major metropolitan library. She asked what is generally meant when we discuss the “changing roles” of reference librarians. After all, she is a reference librarian and sees no change at all in that role within her organization. It occurred to me that changes in reference roles may seem rather more prevalent in smaller libraries than larger ones, and I likened it to a basic concept of motion. In order to detect motion, the average librarian needs a point of reference. When that point is up close and in a small frame, motion is clear and may indicate high speed. When that point is distant and in a much greater frame, motion may still be detectable, but speed is much more difficult to assess.

In big libraries, even small changes can affect a great many people. So there are a lot of hoops to jump through before what may seem like simple additions, subtractions, or alterations can be made. Things move slowly. My wife once called this “dinosaur steps.” But change is always happening, regardless of its presence on our radar. Smaller libraries see these changes all the time, as their organizational structures are much easier to tinker with. Particularly where social and digital media are factors, librarians have had to adapt. Ask any public librarian who volunteered to get a CS degree because the library had to choose between an IT person and a librarian.

Some forward-thinking people espouse that reference is dead–that most previous visions of the typical reference librarian have reached obsolescence. And while I tend to agree with the sentiment of much of this literature, many organizations haven’t yet initiated the changes that would reflect the philosophies now reshaping the profession. Although philosophical and organizational changes would appear imminent, the roles of many urban reference librarians haven’t yet been subject to widespread change.

I’ve heard it remarked by more than one small-library person that the reference desk has become the new quiet place to sit and read. Contrarily, larger libraries and high-traffic metro branches often remain busy beneath the “Ask Here” sign. Regardless of reference traffic, many reference librarians have been removed from the desk to focus on projects and tasks they didn’t have time for previously: programming, marketing, outreach, networking, advocacy, blogging, social media, etc. Meanwhile, some traditional reference librarian positions have been restructured entirely–new functions, new titles.

In May, Jamie Hollier wrote a piece on the community attaché, a marketing position that could double as a model for a professional role in public libraries.

One of the most important roles I see for librarians in the near future is that of guide through content creation. We should be helping our communities and users share their knowledge and expertise. We should be working on publishing e-books by the amazing people just down the street. We should be helping the talented kids that come in learn to edit video.

In fact, many reference librarians have assumed the duties of the community attaché in various capacities, working with users to mine talent, generate content, and educate in new media and creation technologies. Many public librarians now team with IT staff in development of web apps and digitized special collections. For various structural reasons, many larger libraries that once designated specific titles (e.g., media/audio-visual librarian, science librarian, etc.) abandoned those specialized roles for a sort of professional homogeny–a staff of cross-trained, all-purpose librarians. It seems public libraries may now be revisiting a structure of specialization with emphasis not so much on academic background, but on practical expertise and professional vision. The average public library won’t have much use for a literature PhD, but a librarian with practice in digital arts instruction or marketing expertise may be among its best new investments.

In any case, this strikes me as an odd dichotomy in which the giant libraries will eventually meet the small ones. As always, I’m interested in any insider perspective. Are you a “changed” reference librarian? How is your city library planning to shift away from reference?


About Steven V. Kaszynski
librarian, editor, contributor

4 Responses to Changing Roles: Dinosaur Steps

  1. Chris D. says:

    It does seem totally organizational. I work in a small to mid-size library and we’ve changed a few reference librarian jobs into programming and instruction types of jobs (all done by LIBRARIANS of course). But I have friends in the city who are just “librarians.” They still all do pretty much the same thing.

    • Funny you mention that those roles were filled by librarians. Can I assume you mean librarians with a library degree? It occurred to me as I was writing this that changed functions may signal, to some, changed requirements. I’ll apply my powerful brain to that angle and scratch it out in a few days. Thanks, Chris.

  2. Across the Pond says:

    I read all the links you have in here and I liked them all. I think reference in public libraries, while different for everyone, is largely diminished. And those librarian jobs will need to be reinvented. Of course, I am one of those who work in a large university library, so we haven’t gotten any word about restructuring the payroll hierarchy or changing titles or anything. Small libraries probably make those changes in a snap.

  3. Pingback: you might not be doing it wrong, but you could certainly do it better. | Hi Miss Julie!

%d bloggers like this: