By GUY LAMOLINARA and RALF GRÜNKE
The digital age has changed everything about a reference librarian's job, and it has changed nothing.
It is still the librarian's job to provide researchers with expert assistance in locating the most useful information. Yet, there is a new universe of accessible information, in electronic format, and there is a user who may never have other than electronic contact with the librarian.
"Reference Service in a Digital Age" for the first time explored the questions facing reference librarians today. This Library of Congress Institute, held June 29-30, brought together distinguished professionals from across the country and around the Library to focus on electronic reference work being done in libraries.
The institute was sponsored by the Library and hosted by Diane Kresh, director for public service collections, in cooperation with Library Solutions Institute of Berkeley, Calif., which is headed by Anne Lipow. Ms. Lipow is recognized for her role in organizing "Rethinking Reference" institutes throughout the country.
"I know that I will need a few days to sift through everything I heard and learned," Ms. Kresh said at the conclusion of the event. She assured the audience that the speeches and focus group discussions soon would be available from the Library's Web site.
When Ms. Lipow addressed the Tuesday morning audience of 170 in the Mumford Room, she said, "I am only standing here by accident. Linda Arret of Library Services is the one who is really responsible for organizing this institute." She was assisted by 20 staffers.
The evening before, Bonnie Nardi,a research scientist at AT&T Laboratories West, delivered the keynote, "Information Ecologies." The address is based on Ms. Nardi's forthcoming book, Information Ecologies: Local Habitations for People and Technology (MIT Press).
"Ecologies are local settings," she said. "An ecology is defined for each of us by our own personal spheres of influence and participation. ... Most of us participate in multiple ecologies such as our homes, offices, children's schools, places where we volunteer, and health care settings.
"With information ecologies, all of us can influence what happens in our personal ecologies," she continued. "Technological change is not someone else's problem or responsibility; it belongs to all of us."
Ms. Nardi referred to the "dark" writings of those who have referred to technology as something that wipes out "whole traditions and cultures and replaces them with a narrowly scoped, obsessive concern for efficiency. I respond ... to these writers with a more optimistic stance." In her new book, co-written with Vicki O'Day, Ms. Nardi discusses a case study called "Librarians: A Keystone Species." With the advent of the Internet, perhaps even more so than in the past, librarians have become a "keystone species," she said. "We need librarians more than ever" to navigate clients through the "bewildering array of information sources we encounter in the library."
Yet while these librarians may be using the "high-tech" Internet as well as traditional sources to assist patrons, they still provide the "high touch" service that can only come from a human. "In studying librarians ... [they] contributed their special human abilities of tact, diplomacy, judgment and empathy. Their contributions turned the libraries we studied into places where clients felt comfortable and cared for at the same time they were receiving the benefits of the most advanced information technologies."
Ms. Nardi concluded her talk by offering some advice: "As Americans, we are great at know-how. We jump on bandwagons ... [and] manage best with quick and dirty successes."
But "we short-circuit the process of asking why we are making the changes. In other words, when it comes to know-why, we could do better."
The following day, Janice T. Koyama of the University of California at Los Angeles, asked, "How does the Internet challenge the traditional model of reference?"
She noted that matters of privacy and confidentiality "break down aspects of this model." For example, she said, there is a lack of personal contact when providing reference service electronically, and there is a "decreasing usefulness in extended electronic exchanges" between the librarian and the user.
"We need to know how to acknowledge the repeat user" while preserving confidentiality, she said, warning that in some cases "digital libraries are beginning to look like passive warehouses" of information, where there is "little offer of reference help."
Lest anyone in the audience think Ms. Koyama is pessimistic about the future of electronic reference, she proposed the creation of an Internet reference database to which users could refer when they need assistance on questions that have already been answered by other librarians. She urged information professionals to adopt "new mind-sets. To paraphrase the philosopher Nike: Let's do it!"
R. David Lankes of the Educational Resources Information Clearinghouse on Information Technology claims to have earned the first Ph.D. available only and entirely in hypertext. He called the "paper library" one that is "focused on container and location and having a collection that is 'knowable' and finite," whereas in the digital library "our role is radically different. We don't know every single object. We are more than pathfinders" who must provide context for the multitudinous amounts of information available on the Internet.
"You don't want all 5,000 hits from a search engine. You want the five best articles, and that type of reference must be done by a librarian," he said. "On the Internet, there is no selection policy. You are the selection policy. You are now acting as the 'f-word' -- a filter, which is not a bad thing."
He warned that many so-called Web-based "Ask a" services, such as "Ask a Scientist" or "Ask an Expert" often have no library connection. "Thousands of questions are being answered by these services," but there is no one to monitor the accuracy of the information provided.
"There is no such thing as a digital library without a digital librarian," he emphasized.
Like Ms. Koyama, he advocated the archiving of reference transactions in a database, so that a librarian's answer to a query could be reused or at least form the basis for additional reference assistance. This database would be available to all libraries, as a kind of "electronic interlibrary loan for reference."
Thomas Mann of the Library of Congress attempted to define the "proper relationship of real libraries to the Information Superhighway."
Assuming the role of an iconoclast, Mr. Mann said that "I want to protest the assumption that this is a digital age." He cited statistics of the ever-increasing figures for book production in the United States. "And the only free access to these books is still via libraries," he said. "The bulk of reference service cannot be done in a digital environment."
"Copyright is not the problem. Piracy is the problem," he continued. "The digital age faith that copyright will be worked out and everything will be online is fallacious. Copyright problems cannot possibly be solved in cyberspace."
He pointed out that site licenses, whereby a library purchases access to information on the Internet, "are not part of cyberspace because this information is not accessible by anyone anywhere. You must be in a particular place" to access the resource. "This is the antithesis of a virtual library," he said.
"Real libraries," however, "can offer any material without cost. The real solution [to the copyright problem] already exists. It is found in the widespread libraries -- not on the Internet.
Lynn Wheeler and Nancy Reger of Baltimore County Public Library discussed "Defining Reference Services: Transitioning the Public Library."
According to Ms. Wheeler, her library in two months "went from having almost no technology to having a fully operational technology room." Referring to Mann's pronouncements, she said, "There is a place for both types of reference."
For Ms. Wheeler, the "key issues" for digital reference are a lack of staff and training; the need for technical support; public access -- policies must be determined in advance; training of the public; intellectual freedom; maintaining a balance between new and traditional services; and a willingness among staff to adapt.
Ms. Reger sees today's libraries as having "two reference collections -- print and virtual. The reference process is now more time-intensive," she said. "Customers have higher expectations."
The final speaker before the lunch break was Bernie Sloan of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He urged that libraries develop a model for electronic reference services and conceded that "there are dozens of definitions of what a digital library is." He advocated that libraries tackle simple tasks such as developing a standard reference form for use on the Internet, as well as more difficult jobs, such as "motivating people to want to be in digital reference."
The need to maintain the human touch, newly define the role of a reference librarian, and provide adequate staff training in a digital library was highlighted during five simultaneous focus group discussions, summarized in a final wrap-up session on June 30.
Even though the focus groups began by discussing diverse aspects of digital reference services, most eventually identified similar concerns and drew almost the same conclusions, Ms. Lipow inferred at the end of the session.
Members of the focus group discussing "Professional Roles and Responsibilities" concluded that, in the digital age, reference librarians should continue to uphold strong service ethics. As a result, reference librarians need to become competent with regard to using electronic resources and -- at the same time -- "maintain the human touch." Group leaders were Paul Constantine, head of the Reference Service Division of Olin/Kroch/Uris Libraries at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., and Sarah Watstein, assistant director for academic user services and head of the James Branch Cabell Library at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.
Paul Healey, reference/electronic services librarian at Warren E. Burger Library at William Mitchell College of Law, St. Paul, Minn., said the focus group "Reference Resources Online: Acquisitions, Evaluations and Use" also emphasized the need for adequate training of librarians. "Electronic resources are an entirely new area," Mr. Healey noted. "Library staff need a certain level of competence in dealing with electronic resources today." The group also mentioned that the library community should increasingly share resources and technical know-how. Healey shared the facilitator role in the group with Chris Germino, Vanderbilt University.
"Where is the reference librarian in the digital library?" asked Vicki Terbovich, senior project librarian for the Washington Connectivity Project at the Washington State Library, who served as coleader of the focus group "Electronic Give and Take: Variations on Face-to-Face and Real-Time Reference." She suggested that librarians are best qualified to determine the content of electronic resources.
Web sites should be kept simple to accommodate low-end technology and users with disabilities, said the other group leader, Schelle Simcox, reference and instructional services librarian and coordinator of instructional services for the Library Learning Complex at California State University, Monterey Bay, Calif.
The focus group "Collaborative Reference Networks: How We Help Each Other" supported Ms. Simcox's conclusion, according to group leader Gail Clement, coordinator for Digital Library Services and project director for the Everglades Information Network and Digital Library at Florida International University, Miami. "Any electronic resource that is developed must be simple to the patron," Ms. Clement asserted.
With too little emphasis on traditional vs. digital resources, the term "library" may have to be redefined, concluded members of the focus group "Intelligent Agents, Human-Computer Interaction and Technology Trends." Both traditional and digital resources could be used as a combination, said group leader Richard Greenfield, technology coordinator at Alaska State Library, Juneau. Computer tools should increasingly point out to users the richness of traditional resources, he said. Mr. Greenfield shared the facilitative role with Tamas Doszkocs of the National Library of Medicine.
Ralf Grünke is an intern in the Public Affairs Office.