The current information and technology landscape has had a profound impact on the nature of reference services in libraries. In times when almost any factual question can be handled by a quick search on Google or by “asking Siri,” these types of questions, once a signification portion of questions directed reference librarians, have largely disappeared. This trend has been in effect for quite some time, sparking many libraries to refocus the activities of their reference librarians as well as to turn to various technology and content products to reach out to patrons to ensure that they have access to high-quality information sources.
Although many answers to the questions that arise in scholarly research, coursework, or in the course of daily life can be found through Web searches, libraries aren't necessarily relieved from the responsibility of offering resources that provide accurate, current, and nuanced information. While the physical reference collections may largely sit idle gathering dust, demand for online reference resources continues. Students and scholars still appreciate quality information sources from their library that can be cited with more authority and certainty than snippets found on a Web site of inconsistent reliability or a Wikipedia article.
The decline of fact-oriented reference questions has not necessarily been a negative development for reference librarians. In many cases, this shift has opened opportunities to re-shape reference services around more in-depth consultations with students and scholars and to develop more targeted outreach efforts. Of course, reference librarians will remain the experts on where to find any given piece of information, but they now engage in more interactions with patrons that tap their deeper knowledge within their chosen areas of specialization.
The advent of new-generation online catalogs and discovery services also has potential impact on reference librarians and other personnel that interact with patrons. Reference librarians have helped patrons use traditional online catalog inter faces or navigate through a very complex assortment of databases and other resources containing journal articles, e-books, and other online content. Some portion of bibliographic or information literacy instruction as well as general reference queries involves helping library users understand how to use the interfaces and to become familiar with subscription product.
Discovery interfaces promise to greatly simplify the way that library patrons perform library research, providing a single and simplified search interface that spans the entire corpus of the information resources available to them. These discovery services may not fully achieve the ideal, and some gaps in coverage remain. Yet, they do seem well along a course to make patrons more self-sufficient as they access ever expanding collections of digital content provided by their libraries. I'm aware that many reference librarians have concerns about whether these new discovery services can ever guide users to the best and most appropriate resources for their research needs. I certainly agree that the need for expert reference assistance will never be entirely displaced by discovery services, even as they become more comprehensive, reliable, and sophisticated.
These broad-based discovery services seem well positioned to help library patrons gain access to the articles, book chapters, or other scholarly resources, but may not necessarily be optimized to help users find a particular fact. Libraries are also investing in other tools designed to help users that need authoritative resources for facts, statistics, and other information that once was the domain of the library's reference collection. In this issue, we'll look at some of the recent developments with Credo Reference, which began as a searchable online collection of reference works. It has steadily extended its capabilities to become a full-featured structured discovery tool with an integrated suite of channels for interacting with library patrons. While Smart Libraries Newsletter does not normally cover content products, the Literati by Credo product is delivered through a technology platform that overlaps considerably with discovery services, which have been a key area of coverage in recent issues.
I consider it foundational that libraries should have technology infrastructure that supports all their areas of activity. The integrated library system addresses areas such as technical services (cataloging, acquisitions, and serials management) and circulation. Online catalogs and discovery services make the library's collections and related services available to its patrons. This strategic technical infrastructure, however, does not provide systematic support for many strategic library activities, including reference services. Even in libraries well equipped with technology, I've seen reference personnel track their activity with tick marks on paper. Without adding onerous overhead, it seems to me that reference services could benefit from technology services specifically designed to facilitate their work, especially as they become increasingly distributed between inperson and virtual interactions.
It seems reasonable to expect that the proportion of reference inquiries that come through a remote or virtual transaction will continue to increase. Librarians need to be well-prepared to handle questions and service requests that come in from an ever expanding array of media. Most libraries can handle e-mail, phone, and in-person requests, but can they serve people who more conveniently communicate through a text message from their mobile phone or through Twitter or Facebook? I see many libraries well in tune with the need to provide deeper support through social media and mobile devices, but I also see a need for better technology infrastructure designed to support these channels in addition to the traditional forms of patron inquiries.
I also hope that as the new genre of library services platforms mature, that they will also extend their functionality to include better support for reference services and other niches of library operations that have been neglected throughout the reign of integrated library systems. I've long seen the need for a more systematic approach to how a library provides its reference or information services. Many organizations outside the library arena make use of customer relationship management systems that provide automation support, tracking, and analysis for all its interactions with those that buy its products or make use of its services. These CRM products help an organization more efficiently target its resources and to measure performance in terms of speed and quality. They provide a comprehensive platform in support of all of the ways that the organization interacts with its customers and provide tools to help provide support more efficiently, with built-in analytics to assess performance.