What is the Library Reference desk anymore? I’ve been working reference for a good amount of time (in relation to my own short time, and probably a pittance in the views of old school reference librarians), and I have never been asked what might be called a true “reference” question, such as what’s the capital of Zimbabwe? Or who won last year’s world series? Or whatever, I’m not even sure what such a question is anymore. Obviously people get this information from the internet. In days gone by reference librarians sat behind the desk guardians of mundane facts furiously checking almanacs and phone books and encyclopedias. These “ready reference” shelves still exist in many libraries, collecting dust mostly, I honestly can’t remember if I’ve ever looked in an almanac. Perhaps when I was little and playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, and you had to look up facts in a little book that came with the game.
In my opinion the reference desk has changed for the better. The world of information has exploded, but is harder to navigate than ever before. At Columbia that have 1300 (!) databases, most of which are impossible to find when you need them. They have ten million books plus e-books searchable in their catalog. The reference desk is there to help confused, despondent, panicking students navigate. The reference desk provides research assistance and slyly throws in library use instruction. It’s an important job, but it’s really not the same thing at all as “Reference” is it?
So the library has moved on, but yet you still read articles on how wikipedia has supplanted libraries. But that’s only if they are competing, and if anyone thinks a library can compete with the internet for “reference” they are probably still living in 1960 in their mind. But why then do we still call it reference when that’s not at all what we do anymore, and when it gives people the idea that it’s outdated and unnecessary, contributing to the death spiral of reduced use leading to reduced hours. I haven’t the faintest clue what it should be called … the Let us help you, please! desk or something. But the term has stuck around in Library Lingo and probably isn’t going anywhere, so maybe instead we need to get the word out that reference means something new now, something awesome and useful, and completely different from the kind of information than you find on wikipedia. The word reference already has about 300 meanings anyways, what’s one more?