21st Century Librarianship – Part 7, Reference


To say reference in the 21st Century will be different is a huge understatement. Because of mobile technologies, the information environment has radically changed and librarians can not expect to interact with 21st Century customers using 20th Century reference methods.

The ORE [Ohio Reference Excellence] on the WEB program is a reference librarian course of “Six self-paced modules cover the reference process, with resource links, exercises, and quizzes.” Module 2. Interview, states;

The different generations have different styles of getting and using information. Articles about different generations are summarized in Digital Native or Digital Immigrant. Ease with technology is one outstanding difference. “Millennials, also known as Generation Y, the Net Generation, the Digital Generation, the Echo Boom generation were born during the period of about 1980 – 2001 and are in our schools, universities, and recently have entered adulthood. And while only the youngest of this Millennial generation, sometimes known as Generation Z, have been surrounded by digital technology from infancy, the others have grown up and have extensive experience with the web and other technologies. These “digital natives” often pose a challenge to librarians, many of whom are Boomers or Generation X and are “digital immigrants.”

Despite some minor inaccuracies in the statement that date the material, as well as a 2006 reference and a lack of mobile technology in library reference, the general principle is correct – a Digital Immigrant reference librarian trying to provide reference assistance to a Digital Native can be intimidating.

Mobile friendly social media such as text messaging, Twitter and Facebook are portals, able to connect patrons to reference information, and most Millennials prefer to use them rather than face-to-face information seeking. Let’s face it – young people text each other when they’re in the same room. Why should we expect them to “Ask a Librarian”?

Since information is available at a touch, any time, any where, instantly, libraries must become as convenient and accessible as any of them. QR codes and location services (like foursquare) can create direct links to reference desks and librarians to facilitate those 21st Century reference transactions. Reference must be flexible and reflect the changing ways users seek and interact with information. Geosocial Networking is another evolving realm for Millennial users. “Geosocial networking is a type of social networking in which geographic services and capabilities such as geocoding and geotagging are used to enable additional social dynamics. User-submitted location data or geolocation techniques can allow social networks to connect and coordinate users with local people or events that match their interests.” (Sounds like an information market niche that libraries could take advantage of.)

There is a trend toward personalized and specialized reference service with a business model moving toward call centers with tiered reference services. Reference is also moving out of the library as librarians embed themselves in committees, boards and research teams providing essential information to their professional and local community leaders.

Here’s a surprise for most of us – The Embedded Librarian Blog began July 3, 2007 with this statement – “Welcome to The Embedded Librarian blog. This blog is dedicated to exploring and analyzing the trend of embedding librarians in teams and communities of all kinds, in various types of organizations. Future posts will discuss the many dimensions of this trend. I invite you to join me and add your contributions.”
Who knew? ……………………. Seriously! Who knew?

The role of librarian as expert researcher handing information to a waiting patron is counter to the collaborative, participative mindset of the Millennial generation. Reference librarians need to become guides to participants.

George M. Needham, VP Member Services, Online Computer Library Center, is quoted as saying; “The librarian as information priest is as dead as Elvis.” The whole “gestalt” [the essence of an entity’s complete form taken in its totality] of the academic library has been set up like a church, Needham said, with various parts of a reading room acting like “the stations of the cross,” all leading up to the “altar of the reference desk,” where “you make supplication and if you are found worthy, you will be helped.” (When ‘Digital Natives’ Go to the Library, Inside Higher Ed., June 25, 2007.) I think everyone agrees that this sacrosanct position of reference librarian has gone with the last century.

Since reference librarianship is almost a discipline in itself, this Post coverage has by necessity been rather cursory, but hopefully it has opened some eyes and minds to the drastic types of changes in this profession – 21st Century vs. 20th Century. It is not your Grandma’s library any more – it is your Grandkids!

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