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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2015

Book Reviews

Reinventing Reference: How Libraries Deliver Value in the Age of Google

Lia Vella
Instruction & Research Services Librarian
Arthur Lakes Library
Colorado School of Mines
Golden, Colorado

Anderson, Katie Elson, and Vibiana Bowman Cvetkovic. Reinventing Reference: How Libraries Deliver Value in the Age of Google. Chicago: American Library Association, 2015.

Seeing the words "value," "Google," and "reinventing," one might think this is a book for tech entrepreneurs, or at least tech-enthusiasts--but "reference" doesn't fit, and you realize it's geared to library professionals. In their Introduction, the editors write, "this book is not just for librarians and library administrators but for all those concerned about the future of ‘the library'--indeed, this should be everyone concerned with the future of the next generation of citizens" (xiv, italics mine). True, true. Alas, this book will not change that "should be" to "is." As a reference librarian, I found some chapters to be useful, informative, even inspiring; others suffered from multiple problems, including lack of focus and a surprising anachronism, given the "future-oriented" nature of the volume. Despite the weak chapters, this volume is thought-provoking, engaging, and worth the read.

Part 1, "Understanding Reference," surveys the history of reference librarianship, examines the current state of professional ethics, and elaborates upon major challenges inherent in serving users in the digital age. Julie M. Still's chapter on the history of reference services lays useful groundwork for the rest of the volume, despite the acknowledged lack of historical studies in this area. In the well-grounded "Terrorism, Privacy, and Porn," Wilkinson & Cvetkovic look at the ways in which the title elements serve as challenges in light of the ALA's Code of Ethics. Drawing upon statistics, legislation, and research studies to solidify their points, they pose questions related to shifts in user demographics and priorities (aging Baby Boomers, higher demand for dual language materials, the increasing power of images over text) and what this will mean for the future of reference services and the code of ethics used in providing them. Finally, Susan Beck's chapter considers how digital information has impacted the types of information sources, modes of communication, complexity of reference questions, and the accuracy of librarian responses. She concludes that "everything has changed, yet nothing has changed" (p. 27)--reference librarians still serve as an intermediary between information and its seekers--but in different modes and contexts than in the past.

Part Two, "Reference 2.0," begins with Gary Golden's "Academic Library Reference Trends and Forecasts," which calls for the adaptation of library reference services to changes in higher education: student demographics (including the persistence of the "digital divide"), technologies such as mobile computing and social media, the economic ecosystem, and faculty make-up.

Unfortunately, the next two chapters, on reference in school libraries and public libraries, go a bit far afield. The authors tread well-worn ground, often straying outside the focus of the book and sometimes even outside its time scope (which is presumably, the future or at least the present, as opposed to recent history). Ghezzi and Johnson's meandering discussion of school libraries has no clear connection to any main argument or point and the reader may wonder if the essay is going to address reference services (and school libraries) at all. The few elements of interest in this chapter--examples of intelligent use of user-preference data to create services, cooperative programs between public libraries and schools--are buried within the pages of disjointed anecdotes, analogies, disconnected facts, and anachronistic alarmism (e.g., they cite a 1996 Architectural Digest article to support a dire warning about the deterioration of print resources and impossibility of digitization efforts).

Unfortunately, Justin Hoenke's chapter on public library reference services doesn't entirely mitigate the effects of its predecessor, although its argument is clearer: in order to survive, public reference librarians must become collaborators and educators in addition to their traditional roles. An elaboration on technological tools to facilitate these new roles follows. The mundanity of some observations (such as his advice to reference librarians to be "kind to one another and to patrons" because "reference librarianship involves interaction with other people" [97]) contrasts with the dramatic flourishes that bedeck other points: "What happened to the patrons who use to storm the reference desk to find what they were looking for?" (p. 91). Readers may or may not find this irritating.

This section ends with Sara Harrington's "The Central Image," on reference in academic art libraries, which considers in particular the responses to "resource constriction, a digitization imperative, and an assessment mandate" (p. 107-108). It's a thoughtful essay that makes a compelling case for the role of art librarians as specialists in visual culture, which is becoming more important as our society becomes more image-oriented.

The book's last section, "Dude, Where's My Jetpack?" includes John Gibson's "Whither Libraries," a look at primary challenges and innovation potential currently facing the library profession: DRM, crowd-sourcing, artificial intelligence, and technologies for communication and deepening information provision (e.g., QR Codes), and Stephen Abram's concise and thought-provoking "Future World," which identifies seven "key opportunities:" evidence-based reference strategies, experience-based portals, quality strategies, transliteracy, people-driven strategies, curriculum and research agenda, and services and programs. While many of Abrams' ideas are not new, his essay comprises an overarching vision of how these opportunity areas can knit together a set of strategies for public services librarians to ponder as they consider the near future.

In a bit of wistful fun, John Gibson's "Coda" skips forward to the year 2052, blithely describing the transformations that have enabled perfectly effective reference librarianship and an informed community: unrestricted, instantaneous, ubiquitous Internet access, universal access to all information, neurotransmitters and holograms integrated into the human body and information sources-- and brick and mortar libraries that need serve only as archival storage.

While librarians understand the importance of engaging library users and other members of the public, it's tempting to stay within our own disciplinary lenses as we attempt to tackle the big questions; this book doesn't overcome this tendency. Even so, I recommend many of this book's chapters to anyone interested in contemplating the future of library services, including librarians who are not in public services as well as those who work in specialized settings; however, readers who are not actively involved in the library profession may feel less engaged in the details. Because scientists and engineers often prefer their information in digital format, STEM librarians may benefit from Beck's chapter on the digital library user and Abrams' recommendations for moving reference services into the future. Additionally, since many science and technology librarians work within a larger academic organization, Golden's "Trends and Forecasts" essay may be particularly relevant, as well as Harrington's chapter; despite her focus on the art library, many of her insights would apply to any specialized library that operates within a larger organizational structure.

Finally, as the editors admit, "writing about the future is risky business," and I must agree--in part because it seems to have brought out the tendency toward verbal rambling in some of the contributors. The editors go on to express their hope that "continued dialogue on the topic will forge new solutions" (xii, xiv); despite its misfires, I believe this book will contribute to productive discussion and dialogue.

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