The Role of Reference in the Open Web

It is well known that students generally start their searches on Google, Wikipedia, or similar sites.  In fact, one study by OCLC has shown that 89% of students’ searching activity is done on open websites, despite their need for information not available on those sites.

A panel led by John Dove, President of Credo Reference considered the implications of this situation for reference services and further, how can publishers and aggregators collaborate with open web players to the benefit of libraries and their users?

Reference service has been defined as a type of intermediary between a person and a body of knowledge they want who can facilitate access to the knowledge.  It can be thought of as a good filter.

Is “institutionally sponsored reference” dead?  According to pessimists, reference rooms, desks, and interviews will soon disappear, as will reference works in print.  Pessimists point to Google’s vision (no intermediary between user and knowledge–except Google,of course!).

Key questions to be asked are:

  • Why can’t we create digital intermediaries for reference that are programmed by librarians?
  • What would you want to control if you could affect the online life of your students?
  • Where do students get stuck?  (almost 2/3 of respondents say students don’t have the right vocabulary to be able to search resources)

Reference is not dead, but the user has moved–they’re in a new place.  We have to put the resources they need under their noses when they’re not asking for it.

In contrast to pessimists, optimists reply that user needs are higher than ever, and the needed content already exists.  Although users have moved, the technology exists to move with them.  The outlook for reference is better than ever, if and only if:

  • Open web players pay attention to libraries.
  • We meet users at their point of need.
  • Content is provided in context.
  • Librarians and vendors collaborate.
  • Each step in the reference process enhances information literacy.

A new knowledge delivery system is maturing. Layers of authority are emerging, and they reinforce each other.  Reference is not dead–resources are there to provide users with disciplinary boundaries, but librarians must asset their disciplinary knowledge to leverage reference. If we can move with users and build a bridge to where they are, we can increase information usage.  Reference has a tremendous potential.

An online reference service provides:

  • Discovery:  visibility into the library, resources, and access to librarians’ expertise
  • Context:  overview, summary and vocabulary of a topic from multiple perspectives
  • Connection:  seamless integration with relevant resources chosen by your library
  • Innovation:  strategic use of technology.

We need a “North Star”–a guide to where we are going.  Online reference should be bridging between a free website and library sponsored references and tools and do it transparently to the users–a marriage of new technologies and librarians’ expertise.

Click here to join a conversation on reference services, explore best pracctices, contribute ideas,and  hear the latest about student research behavior.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blog Editor

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