Future of Reference in Special Libraries

In an article about the future of reference in special libraries, Stephen Abrams posits a variety of scenarios for reference service, the most pessimistic being that special librarians will be left behind due to advances in technology. His main objective, however, is to highlight key ways special librarians can adapt to the new Web 2.0 landscape and stay relevant. Abrams stresses that those who are open to adaptation will be key in the redefinition of the profession, even going so far as to call it a “new renaissance” in libraries.

First, Abrams makes an important distinction between general reference queries and the “deeper research support that is our stock in trade,” which is becoming increasingly problematic in the age of Google. He says that search engines do a decent job for simple reference queries but librarians are needed when research questions get deeper. The problem lies in the fact that “core users don’t always know when their question is simple or more complicated,” and since more basic reference is now conducted almost exclusively on the web, they will never find out that their question is in fact more complicated.

As a result, they will end up settling for halfway decent answers to their questions, instead of the vastly superior resources they would have discovered with the aid of a librarian. This is a big issue, and it goes even deeper than Abrams suggests. Cassel and Hiremath (2009) define “ready” reference as a briefer query for factual information in which there is usually one answer, but that it is not “simple” reference as the public typically believes. They even list “the data found in a random Internet search are of dubious accuracy” as a characteristic of ready reference. Those users who conduct this type of reference online are likely coming across inaccurate information all of the time without knowing it.

Abrams also echoes the popular call to “go where the users are,” as he explains that special librarians also need to adapt to the latest in Web 2.0 technologies in order to serve their user base most effectively. He uses the example of the OPAC as a tool that was designed primarily for librarians’ needs, and while it is helpful to the general public, it does not always correspond well to the information seeking behavior of today’s Amazon.com generation.

Adams challenges librarians of all types not to radically change their core service model, but rather to continue to find ways to put their reference services into these new spaces that are popular among users. He explicitly mentions mobile devices, instant messaging and social networks as particularly important spaces.

I agree that this is crucial: while we’re not going to be able to abandon the OPAC in favor of some sort of sleek, search-engine-like interface any time soon, we are certainly able to provide multiple entry points into our content, whether it be by creating of web-based research guides or answering research questions via email and chat. At the end of his article, Abrams organizes his ideas into 8 possible scenarios for the future of the special reference librarian, ranging from “fossilization” to “embedded” and “remote” librarians. There are plenty of interesting ideas in these scenarios.

For one, Abrams argues that e-learning is becoming increasingly popular in corporate spaces, but the library is organized on the enterprise level instead of the lesson level. In order to bridge this gap, relationships must be strengthened between libraries and e-learning providers so that reference services can be better integrated into Blackboard and other intranets. This would lead to more effective learning and also higher visibility of library reference services.

Next, his idea of the “embedded” librarian is an interesting one, suggesting that librarians could become more valuable member of the team by physically (and virtually) attending important meetings and finding themselves “at the table” in more situations. Such librarians would then “not only design intranets that mirror each team’s needs but offer personalized service customized to each team member.” I am not very familiar with how prominent of a role special librarians typically have, but I agree that becoming more “embedded” would make their work much more effective and targeted to the actual user needs.

All in all, the article was very informative and written in a clear style. Adams, however, barely addressed the differences between special libraries and the more familiar public and academic venues, which was slightly confusing. I found that many points seemed to be more directed towards academic librarians, but he didn’t make this clear. Both public and academic libraries have advantages in that they can serve a role as a community resource capable of holding events, and I would be interested to hear more about the unique situation of special libraries.