Brave New World

Reference librarians in the age of Google


At a symposium hosted last year by Columbia University's library system, Steven Bell, a librarian from Temple University, took a controversial stand.

In a public debate before an audience made up almost entirely of reference librarians, Bell argued for the abolition of the reference desk by the year 2012.

His position wasn't as radical as it might sound. He wasn't advocating that his listeners retire or find new jobs. To the contrary, he said he believes that their services are more important than ever. But with the Internet changing not only the ways that people—students, scholars, and even librarians—conduct research, but also how they communicate, he believes the old model of a desk staffed by highly trained reference librarians is well on its way to becoming outdated, perhaps even extinct.

In its place, he and others envision a world, not so far off, where librarians are available 24/7 to apply their finely honed research skills and knowledge of information systems to helping patrons search the vast digital stacks of the Internet, as well as the brittle pages of old newspapers and musty shelves stocked with incunabula.

Bell's salvo at Columbia was just the latest round in a larger debate that has occupied the reference world for at least the last decade. With the explosion of the Internet and its host of search options in the '90s, some experts predicted that librarians would become obsolete. Bell is anything but a doomsayer, but in his talk at Columbia and in a blog on the Association of Colleges and Research Libraries' site, he is continually pushing his colleagues to adapt.

"Methods and modes of providing reference service will continue to change—and must, if we are to stay relevant to our users," he wrote in a blog entry not long after the symposium.

That the world of library reference is quickly morphing has long been clear. And the debate about librarians' role is one that resonates among the field's practitioners every day. It is discussed at conferences, written about in library journals, and batted about by an active community of bloggers.

The uncertainty about the future may be unsettling to some, but the potential for technology to change the library world is also clearly invigorating to most in the field. "Any librarian who was afraid of technological change would have left the profession twenty years ago," says Phoebe Acheson, until recently a senior library assistant on the Perkins Library's reference staff. "It's not an age or generational thing. It's a mindset."

The mission of reference librarians is simple to state, complex to fulfill: Keep the library's reference materials well-stocked and organized, and help patrons navigate those resources.

In some cases, librarians are asked to locate elusive answers to basic factual questions, but more often, they are engaged by in-depth queries for which they provide a battery of support. Through a process known as the "reference interview," they pose questions to help students focus research topics—narrowing those that are too broad, and broadening those that are too narrow. They help steer students toward the most effective way of using the library's reference materials, making suggestions about books, databases, and other resources. And they instruct students on how to properly cite reference materials.

In the days before computers, almost all reference queries were made in person, and a search of the library's materials required a skilled librarian to navigate through stacks of hard-bound indexes, which would in turn point to reference books and journal articles kept in library files or on microfilm.

With the advent of computers, printed indexes gave way to digitized databases. But for most patrons in the 1980s and early 1990s, librarians still served as essential guides for many seeking answers to questions large and small.

Now, the growth of the Internet has changed the way that information is stored and organized and, perhaps most important in this context, sought in our culture. With new websites popping up all the time, information that was once buried in books is now readily available. Not only that, the existence of powerful search engines like Google makes that information easier than ever to find. Before the Internet, "librarians had total control over search tools," says Jean Ferguson, head of the Perkins Library System's reference department. "They decided which terms to apply and how to apply them."

Google simplified things. In combination with other sites, it has proven especially adept at providing answers to the basic factual or statistical questions commonly known as "ready-reference."

"Say the question is, 'Where did John Edwards graduate from college?' Now any twelve-year-old can find the answer on the Internet," says Acheson. This shift was, at least at first, troubling to some, who, monitoring the Association of Research Libraries' annual statistics, noted that the total number of reference queries fielded by reference librarians at member libraries had dropped sharply since the early 1990s.

Others question what those numbers actually mean, whether a dip in total questions is necessarily a sign of trouble, or whether it might instead be seen as a boon. If reference librarians spend less time skimming reference books for biographical details about recent presidential candidates, in theory this gives them more time to devote to guiding students through in-depth questions and developing general reference materials.

Of course, students are not just using Google to find basic facts. "It is no exaggeration to say that most student research projects begin with a Google search," observed W. Lee Hisle, a Connecticut College librarian, in a 2005 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

That trend has only increased in recent years. In 2004, Google expanded its empire with Google Books, which features a growing menu of free digital books; the following year it introduced Google Scholar, a searchable archive of full-text scholarly articles that is similar to, if less comprehensive than, many of the private databases that research libraries subscribe to for student use.

With the rapid advance of information technology, it's not hard to see why some popular accounts have cast librarians as Luddites facing a dire threat posed by the Internet and all of its glorious resources. But this narrative is, at best, incomplete.

While there are surely some old-school librarians out there tucked in a corner conscientiously flipping through dusty volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, most reference librarians, especially those at major research institutions like Duke, are far from technophobes. Many of their own databases migrated online long ago. These librarians, human search engines, really, see technology as a tool, rather than a threat. They are early adapters, quick to experiment with new technologies—even those that others in academe view as the enemy—and integrate them into the job.

Illustrations By Dave Wheeler

Illustrations By Dave Wheeler

Take Wikipedia, the popular online encyclopedia made up entirely of user-generated and user-edited content. On an afternoon this past spring, reference librarian Carson Holloway '75 sat at his desk, prepping for a research consultation with a graduate student who was working on a paper on Christian Zionism. Wikipedia was one of his first stops. He skimmed the entry for Christian Zionism and clicked on a few links at the bottom of the page.

Many professors and librarians were wary of Wikipedia early on—and, in fact, many continue to question its dependability. But while Holloway says he would never suggest that a student use the website as an authoritative source, he does believe that it is useful as a means for getting a broad overview of an unknown topic, and may lead a reader to other, more reputable sources.

He's not alone. At an American Library Association conference earlier this year, reference department head Ferguson and Aisha Harvey, another Duke reference librarian, revealed the results of a membership survey they'd conducted in October 2007 on the topic of Wikipedia use. Ninety-four percent of respondents said they had used Wikipedia to find information personally. Perhaps more telling, 74 percent said they had used the website as a resource in answering a patron's question, and 90 percent said that librarians "should" use Wikipedia.

Of course, librarians hope that sites like Wikipedia are just first stops for the students they assist. "As you progress as a researcher, you find that there is such a bounty of stuff that is not online," Ferguson says. "The library houses manuscripts, special collections, federal documents, all kinds of stuff that you won't find in a Google search.

"The percentage of stuff that is online is really small, but since there is so much current stuff, it skews people's perceptions."

Many argue that in a world where so much information is published online—some reliable, some not so reliable—reference librarians are even more important as guides. Margaret Brill, Ferguson's predecessor as head of reference, says that she's noticed that students in recent years are actually less familiar than their predecessors with academic resources like ProQuest or LexisNexis, not to mention those resources available offline. Students are increasingly tech-savvy, she says, "but that's different than being skilled at doing library research."

The library subscribes to more than 400 databases, many of which have the potential to yield more specialized and more complete results than those available through general Web searches. Reference librarians continue to play an important role in developing the library's collection of databases, as well as other elements of its collections, both in print and online.

As classic reference guides have gone online, the library has kept up pace, says Brill, who still serves as subject librarian for Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Strolling through the reference stacks, she stops in front of long rows of shelves holding sixty volumes of the 2004 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Perkins now subscribes to the dictionary's digital version. Where students once had to come to the library and page through these volumes, searching alphabetically for multiple terms, the online service allows them to access the information from the comfort of their own dorm rooms. What's more, she says, entries now provide quick links to citations and related materials.

The ability of students to carry out complex research projects from the comfort of dorms, reading rooms, and coffee shops presents new challenges to the librarians who would assist them. Those at Duke 
and elsewhere describe periodic encounters with students who come to the desk frustrated after spending hours searching fruitlessly for a bit of information that is, to a trained librarian, easy to find.

"We need to be more aware now of the point at which the user stops being able to figure it out for themselves" and be there to help them make the next steps, says Jeffrey Pomerantz, an assistant professor in the information and library-sciences school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies the integration of digital reference services into libraries.

To that end, almost all university libraries now operate "virtual reference desks," where reference librarians are available for consultation via the Web. In the late 1990s, online chat and messaging programs became popular among students, who used them to stay in constant touch with friends at school and back home. By the early 2000s, librarians had begun to take notice. Ferguson recalls walking through the undergraduate library at UNC, where she was assisting librarians while working on her master's degree in library science. Every student seemed to have an AOL Instant Messenger (IM) window up in the corner of the screen.

In the summer of 2003, UNC's reference staff began taking questions via IM, and when Ferguson came to interview for a job as coordinator of virtual reference services at Duke the following year, she talked at length with Tom Wall, associate university librarian for public services, about the technology. After being hired, one of her first projects was to replace a chat subscription service that Duke had begun testing in 2002 with IM. The service has taken off. Librarians fielded 500 questions during the 2003-04 school year using the old chat service; this past year, they answered more than 5,000 on IM.

Last fall, they embedded a messaging window in their website so that users no longer have to log in to IM to send a message. The technology, Wall says, is "among our fastest-growing services." The instant service makes the response time of the desk's e-mail service, which guarantees an answer within two hours when librarians are on the desk, seem glacial by comparison.

Virtual reference is just one piece of the reference staff's communications strategy. A few years ago, the reference desk adopted a new slogan, "Save Time, Ask a Librarian," which was subsequently shortened to "Save Time, Ask Us" and in some cases, simply "Ask Us Now!" While on the desk or walking the floor, librarians wear blue and yellow buttons adorned with the slogan. It also features prominently on the library's website, where it serves as a link to a contact page that includes the desk's phone number and e-mail address, and an open IM window.

In addition, librarians have spent time improving subject-specific guides that are available on the library's website. In the past, Wall says, each guide "was just a litany of content. Now it's more of a portal." The pages integrate content with useful links, as well as an IM window. They also have directed this content to course-specific Blackboard sites. Wall estimates that about 25 percent of the sites, where professors host online discussions and post syllabuses, assignments, and readings, now also have customized reference guides for students conducting research.

Not all forays into new communications technology have been unqualified successes. The reference staff has struggled to find a way to use the popular social-networking website Facebook. The Perkins system is a registered "group," and many librarians have created personal pages. But besides an "application" that allows friends to search the Duke catalogue straight from librarians' personal pages, which most acknowledge is only mildly helpful, if at all, they haven't really found a way to make it useful. "We have to be part of the community, not there as interlopers," Wall says. They haven't figured out how to do that—yet.

They are also working on integrating software that will allow librarians to answer students' questions via cell-phone text message. "We need to give ourselves time to play around with these technologies," Ferguson says. "And we need to give ourselves permission to fail."

Illustrations By Dave Wheeler

Illustration by Dave Wheeler

It's the widespread success of virtual reference initiatives, not the minor failures, that make critics like Steven Bell, the Temple librarian, question the future of the traditional reference desk.

Some schools, like the University of California at Merced, have done away with the reference desk entirely. Librarians there answer reference queries via the Web or over the phone. Other universities have made moves to combine reference with other public services like circulation or information technology. In a 2007 article, "Technology Killed the Reference Desk Librarian," in The Reference Librarian, Bell describes a wireless device used by the Orlando Public Library that allows librarians to assign "greeters" and "roamers" to welcome and direct patrons.

At those libraries that maintain a traditional structure, he writes, "reference desk librarians now frequently observe that their work is not at all what it used to be. The steady salvo of traditional ready-reference questions [has] sputtered. It's far more likely that reference librarians will find themselves fixing paper printer jams, showing patrons how to use software, and answering some in-depth and potentially complex research questions."

He and others have pointed out that it might be more efficient to hire clerical workers or student interns to load printer paper, direct patrons to the restrooms, and refer patrons with in-depth questions to librarians with advanced degrees. But Wall, who hosts monthly lunches for students to solicit feedback about library services, respectfully disagrees. "Students like one place to go for information," he says. "They don't like to be bounced around."

Despite the success of Duke's virtual reference services, he says he does not see them as a substitute for good, on-the-desk help. Rather, he argues, the two strategies complement, even boost each other: Librarians have struggled over the years to appear accessible, and "technology has created that friendly face." On IM, Duke's reference staff members communicate on students' turf, using students' terms, eschewing, for the most part, capital letters and punctuation and focusing on getting the message across. Many report that the students they talk to via IM wind up at the desk later.

A recent survey by the Institute of Museum and Library Services suggests that Wall's reasoning may be right on the mark. Because "an explosion of available information inspires the search for more information," the authors found, the Internet does not compete with libraries and, in fact, may increase library visits.

The push to maintain beefed-up reference services in the physical library also may make sense given that the library is, by at least one measure, more popular than ever, Wall says. In his seven years at Duke, the library's annual door count has more than tripled, from 568,000 in 2001-02 to more than 1.8 million this past year.

Wall attributes the rise, in part, to the design of the new Bostock Library and the staged renovation of Perkins. Both projects are part of a national trend toward creating libraries in what is known in library circles as the "information commons" model, featuring open space, comfortable seating, and the latest in technology. "We're doing a better job of meeting all of the academic and many of the social needs of the university," Wall says. "You know the old saying about the library being the heart of the university? We've become that."

He contends that improved services have also contributed to the increase in use, and says that he's constantly reevaluating the library's public services and is open to new ideas about how best to reach out to students. Five years ago, he hired reference librarian Stephanie Ford to work the 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift on weeknights, a popular study time for students, but a time when most librarians are in bed.

This move appears to have been a great success. "At night, it's like a nightclub in here," says Melissa Solomon Ph.D. '05, who often spent late nights in the library while working on her dissertation on late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American literature, and continues to frequent the library while conducting research assistance for professors at the nearby National Humanities Center. "There is not an open seat. There are times when Stephanie is literally running between people. You hear them calling out her name."

For the past several years, subject librarians have hosted office hours in academic departments. A few years ago, the reference staff tested a series of "Librarian in the House" events in East Campus dorms. (Interest was weak, so the series was abandoned.) This past spring, Acheson, the former library assistant, designed a pilot "roving reference" program, under which librarians roamed Bostock and Perkins armed with an iPhone and a Sony UMPC handheld wireless device, bringing their services directly to students.

Though librarians loved wielding the spiffy devices, they called off the program after finding that the percentage of in-depth questions was lower than at the desk, and that "most questions didn't require a computer," Acheson says. For those questions that did, librarians found it easier to help students on their own laptops, rather than connecting via a handheld device.

The goal for librarians, especially those in the reference department, Acheson says, is to "use technology to make things easier. There's a simple litmus test we perform: Is it just a cool tool? Or is it a cool tool that actually does something for me?"

Reference head Ferguson stresses that as virtual services continue to expand, Duke must also make efforts to expand its presence online and create new ways for patrons to access the university's collections. "We need to be partnering with things like Google Scholar. We need to stop thinking of as the only interface between users and us," she says, referring to the library's homepage.

To some extent the library has done that. On the night shift, Ford takes questions over IM from students at North Carolina State University and UNC a few nights a week; her colleagues there reciprocate on other nights. Perkins, along with Duke's professional school libraries, are members of the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), a nonprofit service and research organization with more than 69,000 member libraries around the world. In recent years, OCLC has collaborated with Google Scholar and Google Books so that users can link directly from Google to see holdings at nearby libraries.

Last fall, Acheson, working with Paolo Mangiafico, a consultant in the library's digital-projects department, developed a downloadable program that works in a similar way. When a book's unique ISBN number appears anywhere on any website, the plug-in recognizes it and automatically cues a GetIt@Duke link, which leads directly to the Duke catalogue.

Acheson says that many of the most innovative ideas come from the blogs that have become required reading for many reference librarians. There are thousands of blogs that focus on technology and libraries.

Recently, she and Mangiafico began to explore the potential of including interactive, Web 2.0 applications in the online card catalogue., a website popular among book lovers, allows users to rate books and put identifying "tags" or keywords on them that make them easier to find. It also allows users to see books that have been judged similar to their likes, based on user feedback.

UNC's Pomerantz acknowledges that there is some tension as libraries are pulled in two different directions, the physical and the virtual. On the one hand, he says, public and university libraries are increasingly playing to "hyper-local" niches, often serving as community centers. "At the same time, there is a lessening of importance of geography," as libraries reach out via the Web to patrons around the world.

But they will press on. Asked to consider the future, Duke's Ferguson pauses to think. "The Holy Grail," she says, "would be to have an online presence that mirrors our physical presence."

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor