Is Reference Still Necessary? (Argue a Point of View)

Home Forums Student forums Kirsty Is Reference Still Necessary? (Argue a Point of View)

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    • #1046
      Kirsty Roberts

      Over the past decade, there’s been prolific discussions about whether the field of reference still has any value in an age of ever-growing technology, particularly in an academic context. A quick Google search will show numerous results proclaiming reference to be dead – followed by any number of articles questioning this belief.

      What seems to be the consensus, however, is that while traditional reference has rapidly lost its appeal, reference services have become more important than ever.

      Technology is quickly becoming a ubiquitous feature in many of our lives (whether we’re aware of it or even choose to acknowledge it or not) and as a result, a number of services have needed to adapt or risk perishing from mainstream use – reference included. As identified in this particularly insightful article about Wikipedia’s reach as a reference service, “students would rather use Wikipedia than outside reference services.”

      But why is that?

      For a start, online platforms such as Wikipedia and Google offer instantaneous results and, while they’re not necessarily always accurate or trustworthy, they provide students with a leaping-off point or basic knowledge on an issue. This is one area where traditional reference has ceased to have value – the basic query. As reference and instruction librarian Iris Jastram posits in her professional blog from experience, students these days are “perfectly able to find many of the answers to fact-based questions on their own”. Students believe themselves to be adequately equipped with the knowledge needed to conduct these basic search queries for research because they’ve gained it from personal experience. After all, who hasn’t found themselves Googling a piece of trivia during an argument and rubbing it in the other person’s face when the internet proves you right?

      What students lack, however, is the ability to perform more complex searches or fulfil queries requiring specialist information – which is an area in which reference librarians these days tend to be earning their keep. With the troves of information on any single subject now available to an individual, it can be difficult to weed through the overwhelmingly irrelevant data just to reach what is needed. Reference librarians, now more than ever, need to be well-versed in the field of Information Retrieval and its particular relation to virtual services. Magi and Mardeusz assert that to properly fulfil student requests, reference librarians require an ability to search and properly navigate a variety of databases and search engines using knowledge of operators and advanced features so that they can “recommend those that are most useful”– a skill students often lack, according to that same article on the ‘Wikipedia Generation’, stating that they “lack the ability to take their research further – they don’t know where or how to search for the information they need outside of Google.” It is for this reason that the ability to provide specialist subject knowledge has become so essential for those in the role of reference librarian and has become the basis of increased consultation requests.

      As can be seen in these prior examples, the field of reference has certainly evolved in recent years along with the responsibilities of reference librarians. Laura Saunders identifies this change in service models as a ‘tiered service’, where the responsibility of reference queries is “broken into discrete areas, handled by paraprofessionals and librarians, depending on complexity” – the former of which resembling what most of us at QUT refer as the ‘Ask a Librarian’ service, with the latter being ‘Study Solutions’. These are both services that have managed to thrive (if the continuously out-booked consultation sessions are anything to go by) despite the vast number of articles proclaiming reference services to be a thing of the past.

      So while the answer to the question ‘is reference still necessary’ is undoubtedly yes – thanks, in part, to the way it has managed to incorporate new and more relevant services – it would certainly benefit from some serious rebranding in the name department to ensure the magnitude of their services is truly reflected.

    • #2294
      Chris Sonneveld

      Hi Kirsty.

      Thanks for the great post. I’m surprised to see no one respond to such a thought provoking piece. I agree that people’s Googling skills and Wikipedia use can limit the quality of the information that someone is receiving. This is reassuring in that the title Reference Librarian may still exist when we finish the course. I think there will always be a portion of the population that will always need a better explanation of how research can be more effective, whether that is through classes or face-to-face interaction. I also agree that if we develop how we interact with our patrons it will not only improve the service that we’re offering as well as keep our service relevant.

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