Saturday, August 16, 2008

Reference Renaissance: Theory Meets Practice

Theory Meets Practice: Educators and Administrators Talk was the sleeper hit of Reference Renaissance, at least for me. I mean this in the sense that on paper it sounded like the least interesting session. If *anything* had been playing against it, I would have gone to the other program. But it was the plenary session of the conference, so it had no competition. It was also directly after lunch on Tuesday. I gave serious thought to bagging this session and going for the three hour lunch. But because I believe I always owe my funding agency full attendance at every conference they send me to, I went.

This was absolutely the right decision because it was fascinating, energizing and thought provoking, complete with screaming audience and panel members. I was worried that I couldn't do this session justice from my notes, but thankfully, David Lenkes has posted an audio file of the entire session at If you've got an hour or so, listening to this program would be a great use of your time. To encourage you to take the time to listen, I'll dispense with my usual play by play of the session and focus on my reactions to it.

The presenters on this panel were:

The panel chair asked each participant to answer three questions in their opening remarks:

1) What is the most critical skill in reference librarianship?

2) How are you improving reference service or library education at your institution?

3) Do you have any predications for the future of reference.

To hear how the panel responded, listen to the audio file referenced above. What follows are my impressions and reactions.

One thing that seemed to come from all the presenters is that reference needs to be more about evaluating and summarizing resources and not just giving patrons a stack of articles. More is not always better in today's sea of information. While I haven't been writing summary memos since I've gotten back, I have taken this to heart in that I'm trying to offer fewer, more focused articles to my state agency patrons instead of sending lists of dozens of articles that may be somewhat relevant to their topic. I've also been re-impressed with the need for good reference interviews. We won't be able to do much "added value" type work if we're not very clear on what the patron needs.

Another concept that appeared to be emphasized from all panelists, but especially from Jamie LaRue, is that reference librarians need to be actively engaged with their communities. They need to members of the local chamber of commerce, of the rotary club, of other venues with community leaders. Only by being engaged in one's user communities can librarians get a good handle on what is important to the community and demonstrate the value of library collections and library expertise to the community. Jamie gave the example of one of his librarians joining the local downtown development committee. Now they won't meet without the librarian around to provide resources and research assistance.

I acknowledge this need, but I'm not sure what to do about it. My life seems plenty full already and I'm not much of a joiner aside from some selected church activities (where I do try to promote libraries). But I will be thinking about what opportunities I could be taking advantage of. And I may check with my coworkers and leadership to see what they're involved in. Then I'll have to see if there's anything in my life that I can downsize to make way for the new activities. Are any readers out there active in the way that Jamie suggests? What are you doing?

Another, possibly anecdotal or institution specific, idea talked about in this section was the idea that about 85% of typical reference questions could be handled by paraprofessionals. There was talk of letting frontline reference be exclusively paraprofessional with reference librarians being on-call for the other 15%. The reference professionals would then have time freed up to create the guides, the executive summaries, the economic gardening and community building suggested by most of the panelists. While this is a tempting concept, I'm wary of going through with it, as were a number of audience members. I can't really speak for my fellow attendees, but I'm wary because we as a profession haven't effectively demonstrated the difference between para and MLIS degreed staff. From the public's point of view everyone who works in the library is a librarian. And if paraprofessionals are cheaper and can answer the vast bulk of reference questions, why pay for the degree? Especially if they're not visible? Something like this actually happened at the Anchorage Municipal Libraries a few years back. Many MLIS degreed librarians were let go and hours were extended by staffing more positions at the paraprofessional level. Librarians weren't freed to add value to information the community needed, they were let go. But I suppose this could vary by community. And, not living in Anchorage, I might not be fully informed about the effects of the change.

After the other panelists emphasized the need for librarians to dedicate themselves to lifelong learning, Marie Radford practically brought the gathering to its feet by loudly pointing out that librarians already are dedicated to lifelong learning. It was a great moment, but you'll have to listen to the audio.

Finally, I need to mention something that just floored me, despite the fact I work in a very open, supportive workplace. During the question and answer period one of Jamie LaRue's employees had some very pointed remarks about some aspects of Douglas County Library's recent changes and how they weren't working for her and some other reference librarians. For all my adult life I have internalized the lessons "Thou SHALT NOT criticize your employer in public" and "If you can't say something nice about your employer, don't say anything at all." Unless my employers engage in blatantly immoral or illegal behavior that isn't being addressed in other venues, you won't see me writing negative things about them. I haven't been directed to act this way, but it makes sense to me.

So I was very surprised to hear a panelist criticized by one of his own employees in such a public forum. But Jamie LaRue appeared to handle the question and criticism with grace. I got no feeling that the librarian would face consequences for her actions. And a good discussion ensued about how supportive a workplace has been developed so that librarians feel comfortable in bringing up problems in this way.

Overall a very good and surprising session.


Note: By August 20, 2008, all of the presentation slides and handouts for Reference Renaissance will posted to the conference site at Later in the year, Neal-Schuman will be publishing conference proceedings. I’m looking forward to those, since I (or anyone else) could only attend 1/6 of the offered sessions, plus the Keynote and the Plenary Session.

Also, as I write up sessions, I very much welcome comments and corrections. Just as I was physically unable to attend all 36 sessions, so too I might not have picked up on everything in the sessions I did attend or I might have accidentally misinterpreted something. Or maybe you’ve got a different take on the session you’d like to share.

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