BackTalk: What's Still Wrong with Reference

By David Isaacson

In May 1984, William Miller published a comprehensive critique of reference service entitled “What's Wrong with Reference: Coping with Success and Failure at the Reference Desk” (American Libraries). Some 24 years later, I wish I could say things have improved, but, in fact, they have gotten even worse.

Indeed, the major problem with reference service today remains much as it was in 1984: we still cling to the idea that our mission is to provide a wide array of sources when our real mission ought to be educating users to distinguish between their information wants and needs.


Part of the problem falls on the profession. The crux of Miller's indictment was that reference librarians were guilty of promising more service than they could deliver and seemed incapable of admitting they couldn't give everyone superb service. Miller had the courage to point to a growing schism between highly motivated reference librarians, in danger of burnout, and fearful, even indolent ones unwilling or unable to take advantage of technology.

Miller's article, of course, came out some years before online catalogs were ubiquitous, to say nothing of the Internet, email, online journals and books, chat reference, Google, and blogs. Today, it is a sad irony that the e-revolution has yielded in too many libraries little more than window dressing for our reference services. Ideally, reference librarians should be essential human links between users and information. We provide an indispensable service but have not convinced a majority of our users, however, that librarians are critical to information and knowledge.

Teach users to search

Another part of the problem rests with our users. We are not dealing with an information illiterate public but one that is more, let's say, information semiliterate than ever. Google and Wikipedia, for example, have conditioned Internet users to getting that quick information fix, so much so that many people don't question the validity, authority, or accuracy of their search results. Responses aren't the same thing as answers.

Web pages are not substitutes for good reference librarians. Even the most interactive web pages can only imitate mechanically a librarian's special combination of service, awareness of patrons' naïveté, searching skills, and subject knowledge. More than just giving answers, we can offer users lessons that will teach them how to frame answerable questions. Still, too many of our users fail to see librarians as the most highly qualified teachers of how best to learn from or mine the web.

Reference desk 2.0

The good news is there is much potential for improvement. Notably, in the more than two decades since Miller's article was published, libraries have become more attractive places to meet people, both in person and in cyberspace, whether to do research or to interact socially. Unfortunately, the 1984 reference model endures in too many libraries today: librarians passively waiting at a desk for people to approach.

We must experiment more with having reference librarians roam among users, actively asking if they can help them. Some libraries already have embraced this strategy with positive results. But we can do more, both at the library and online. I don't mean to suggest we stalk patrons, just that we more actively solicit and then win their attention and respect as teachers.

To facilitate this without overburdening librarians, additional support staff, as Miller suggested, could be trained to answer the simpler questions at information desks, leaving professional reference librarians with time to get involved with patrons, whether to help answer a more complicated reference or research question or to teach. This could be done (and in some cases is already being done) face to face by appointment, via chat reference or email, or simply by being available, as other teachers are, for drop-in consultations during scheduled office hours.

One thing is for sure: we are still missing too many opportunities the Internet has offered us to reach our patrons.

Going forward

Long before Marshal McLuhan popularized the phrase “the medium is the message,” librarians knew, better than anyone else, that format often shaped content. McLuhan died before the Internet was born, but his famous words ring true of web culture: it appeals first, beguilingly, to our wants—immediate gratification and quick mental associations—long before it engages the need for the slower processes of deliberative and critical thought.

We have a lot of work to do to help our users become more critically aware of the difference between a vague information want, superficially met, and a more focused information need that is deeply satisfied. So far, we seem to have focused more on marketing our image than actually providing indispensable service. Let's acknowledge that that must change. As Miller argued in 1984, reference service won't improve until we are more honest about its shortcomings.

Author Information
David Isaacson retired in 2005 after 32 years at the Waldo Library of Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing