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April 16, 2007



Interesting article from the Chronicle. I'm not sure I agree with Mr. Carlson's description. The way he describes the session; one would think that the panel was very rude to those asking questions. That is not my recollection. I will admit that I had higher expectations for the session, but parts of the discussion were thought provoking. I also didn't get the impression that you were saying all reference interaction had to be done online. Your main point was adapt to the way our students communicate or lose contact and relevance. I'm socializing the idea of merging our reference and circulation desks before the start of the fall semester.

Lyena Chavez

I just read the Chronicle article. Was this the same session that I attended in Baltimore? I can assure you that no one on this panel “ridiculed” Ms. DeMey; instead, they offered some thoughtful suggestions as to why her students may have stated that they preferred face-to face interactions (namely because she had worked with these students for a period of time and likely developed an excellent rapport with them). Honestly, I appreciated hearing the results of Ms. DeMey’s poll (as did many others). I never got the feeling that anyone was “sentimentalizing her experiences at the reference desk.” I thought the whole idea of the session was that we go beyond our "habits of practice" and continue to engage in experimentation. This certainly doesn’t “underplay the value of face to face” or undermine what we currently do; rather, it emphasizes the need to explore and tap into various social networks (both face to face and virtual) when appropriate. (Maybe some librarians missed the “when appropriate” part??)

Amos Lakos

I am not surprised by the "still" negative reaction by "some" librarians to change efforts in the provision of reference services. I thought that the panel was quite "polite" in its presentation, and tried to be objective. However, anybody who tries to think outside the box and tries to question long held library values and perceptions will have to absorb some reactions from the keepers of library purity. In any case, the discussion about the future of reference is not about finding consensus inside the library profession, it is about being effective and delivering services that work. In that sense, trying to use technology in creative ways should be viewed more positively. In my view, it is not a question of "face to face" vis-a-vis "virtual" - it is about continuous improvement based on assessment and analysis and doing what works. And in that context, I was quite impressed by Brian's approach to find new ways to reach his students.


I unfortunately wasn't at ACRL this year, but my thought is that "face to face" preference doesn't mean it has to be at the desk. I object to us staffing our service points "just in case" someone comes in and needs help. A student who prefers face to face help may be in class, in a lab, or somewhere else on campus and may never walk into the library to get help. So the two concepts (moving away from the desk model and wanting face to face interaction) aren't mutually exclusive.

Eric Frierson

Hi, Brian, and all reading this blog --

I must disagree with your assessment that Kathy and I took the purpose of the panel (critically thinking about the future of reference) as a personal attack. Our frustration did not stem from the ideas behind the panel's talk, but rather from the way in which those ideas were presented and the ways in which some comments and questions from the audience were handled. Mr. Carlson’s piece for the Chronicle is written to excite, and indeed it has -- and I think that needs to be taken into account before making any reactions to what was written.

With that in mind, the anger I felt (perhaps frustration is a better word) was in reaction to what I, and apparently other, librarians felt about the panel’s responses to questions and comments in the audience. I think many of those who challenged some of the ideas presented by the panel were hoping for some more critical analysis about how Web 2.0 and social network reference strategies fit into the larger picture of reference. Instead, we received criticism of our own observations in practice and “I’ll follow up with you by e-mail.” We were really wanting to hear some of the panels answers to the questions that were asked, and instead, we got responses, whether they were polite or not, that addressed something else.

As one comment here notes, when Ms. DeMey brought up her survey, instead of offering some insight and discussion about how face-to-face and virtual encounters can compliment each other, they offered advice on how her survey may have not actually brought out accurate answers. Even if the response was done in the most polite way possible, it did not address the underlying question: how do these new approaches to reference fit today?

Still, I would like to pose that question to you, and all librarians with a mind for hopping online: how do virtual spaces like Second Life, Facebook, and blogs fit? Is “being there” enough? What are ways in which we could make students comfortable with interacting with a librarian through Facebook? In a recent survey I did with my students, half said they’d love it if I worked with them on Facebook, and the other half said they’d rather not interact with librarians there. One even went the distance and said, “That’s creepy.”

I think this stems from something you pointed out in the panel: many students are not yet used to thinking about social networking sites as places for academic discussion and discovery. How do we change this attitude? Should we change this attitude? Should we hop online for the 50% that want us there and risk making the other half feel creepy?

I’m not trying to play devil’s advocate – I think the skeptics out here just want some answers to these questions before we adopt the notion of “burn the reference desk”, or even the notion of “okay, keep the reference desk, but add social networking to your workload.” I applaud those (yourself included) that have pioneered the use of social networking technologies in library service. I think so many of us are just dying for a more complete answer to some of the questions that exist.

I know the article has placed you and the rest on the panel at the center of heated discussions and has made you the target of bad feelings – I don’t condone the reporter for doing that. His interpretation of the panel and those reacting to it were fairly shallow. Hopefully my quotes from the article were not taken personally.

Is there a place where we can have some dialog on this topic? I know you’re writing a piece on social networking tools, but I hope that this kind of discussion could benefit your work, not distract you from it. Perhaps you already know of a mailing list concerned with these topics? If so, please let me know – I’ll join, and hopefully we can get a discussion going to input from a variety of librarians around the country.

Kathy DeMey

Kathy DeMey here - the person who was "ridiculed" at the ACRL panel. I already wrote to Eric and Brian that I did not feel ridiculed, but I did feel dismissed. Good things are resulting from this brouhaha. The Chronicle article and emails from both Eric and Brian inspired me to post a question to the DIG_REF list along the lines of "traditional reference dying or dead?" and I'm getting a ton of feedback, both directly to me and to the list. I can't write more now, as I'm running off to teach an English 101 class. Let me just say thanks to Brian for his portion of the panel presentation, because it moved me, a 54-yr. old librarian who got my degree back in 1990, to dip into the world of Facebook. I just now created an account!

Josh Boyer

Hi, I'm Josh Boyer at NC State. I was not at the ACRL panel, so I'm just jumping in out of the blue. Correct me if my comments end up off base.

I've spent 12 years now involved in what we used to call "virtual reference" (and now need a better name for). I'm a strong advocate of doing reference in new ways and in reaching students where they are. When we at NC State were able to add text messaging to our suite of services a year ago, I was tickled. The fact that the volume of text messages received by my library is modest, well, that's fine. Services don't have to generate huge numbers to be cool.

What confuses me about this debate is that it frames the traditional reference desk vs. all our newer efforts as an either / or choice. It's not. We need some kind of desk or service point, and we need all the new methods Brian champions. Clearly we need to rethink the traditional desk because our desk stats are falling. But while we're talking stats, I'll point out that at my library and many others, the majority of our questions still come to the desk. IM, SMS and other methods get all the attention because they're growing and interesting, but the stats on those methods are still well below the stats of the desk. To watch the growth of new methods and jump to the conclusion that the old method is dead strikes me as wrong.

It's like watching the growth of e-books and concluding that we should toss out our print books. It's like the speculation 10 years ago that the internet would destroy books and newspapers, or the speculation long ago that TV would destroy the radio. The older industries had to change (and yes, some of them had to shrink) but they're still around, serving their purposes. So the role of our desks will change and maybe shrink, but they're still useful to us and to our patrons. Right?


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