By LAURA GOTTESMAN
Joe Janes, founding director of the Internet Public Library (www.ipl.org), asked his Library audience during a Luminary Lecture to imagine starting a contemporary reference service from scratch, as if there were no history of patrons coming to libraries and finding librarians for their reference needs.
"I always encourage people to think about just starting over. If we had never done reference before today, what would it look like? Would it be primarily based on making people come to the same place you are for a certain number of hours a week?" asked Janes, whose February lecture topic was "Why Does Digital Reference Matter?"
"If not, think about the best ways for them to be able to approach you. Make the service meet the needs of the community, not the needs of the librarian," advised Janes, an assistant professor at the Information School of the University of Washington.
Janes' talk was the eighth in the Luminary Lectures @ Your Library series, sponsored by the Library's Public Service Collections Directorate. Nearly all of the previous lectures have been captured as archived webcasts, which are available on the lecture series home page at www.loc.gov/rr/program/lectures.
"It's easy to be mindless. It's harder to be mindful as we translate what we know into a new environment," Janes said. "Digital reference matters because it is a test of things we took for granted for a very long time, such as the ‘reference interview.'"
Noting that it took the library community 30 years to "settle the question of whether a telephone should be at the reference desk," Janes appealed to librarians in the audience to see recent technological developments as an opportunity to expand reference service.
Librarians have become "tool users far more effectively than we've become tool makers," he observed. "We used to be really good at tool making: think about Poole's Index to Periodical Literature at the turn of the 19th century; think about Bartlett's Quotations; think about Noah Webster; think about Melvil Dewey; think about all of the people building all of those competing cataloging systems."
He noted the creation of some new tools, such as the software QuestionPoint and other programs, to enhance digital reference. "We're having a resurgence; that's to the good," Janes said. "I'm loath to abandon that legacy without a struggle."
He suggested that, in order to remain relevant, librarians must tailor their services to the needs of their particular communities and respond to the expectations of their users. He said librarians must understand that people need options–that every user will not want to seek them out in the same way, that one kind of service does not meet everyone's needs.
"I think many libraries are not central to the information lives of their communities and that's a problem. We've been displaced," Janes said. "We need to regain the center, so that when people think of quality information they think of the library that is meant to serve them," he added.
"So why does digital reference matter? Well, it won't matter if we do it badly; if we do it alone; if we do it only one way; if we do it in secret or in hiding (put the link on your front page or else!); if we do it too slowly, and I mean both in response time and in getting this [effort] ramped up; if we do it from a position of fear," Janes warned. "Digital reference is going to matter if we serve more people more efficiently than ever before. I think we need to turn the page: it isn't digital reference–it's reference."
Go to www.loc.gov/rr/program/lectures/janes.html to view a cybercast of this presentation.
Laura Gottesman is a digital reference specialist in the Public Service Collections Directorate.