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The Future of Reference

Periodically, the librarians of the U of M campus get together for an informal discussion session.  Yesterday they met to discuss an article by Stephen Abrams, and I was happy to be able to take part. The article is available here for now (Evolution to Revolution to Chaos? Reference in Transition) and is archived in full text in several ELM databases, including Academic Search Premier and InfoTrac Student Edition. In the article, Abrams offers fourteen potential scenarios for the future of library reference service. Abrams glosses over the “bricks” of library buildings (saying that these have been “renovated to within an inch of their lives into commons, research, community, teen, and scholarly spaces” where library services are successfully put into context) and breezes right past the “clicks” of online library service (touting the profession’s creation of “websites, elearning objects, and licensing for more content than individual libraries ever dreamed of having in the past!”). Instead, he focuses his fourteen scenarios on our “tricks” – those things we do so successfully to help people find information when they’re in our libraries. The biggest challenge to reference services in the coming era, Abrams says, is transferring this expertise – and marketing it as such – to the online environment.

I won’t go over each scenario here, but I would recommend giving the article a scan if you haven’t seen it already. The ideas are in turn logical and provocative, interesting and challenging. If you had to pick one of these scenarios as being the most likely, which would it be? Which one would you most like to be a part of professionally?

The discussion in the room was interesting; here are some random notes that may provide food for thought as you’re thinking about reference in the 21st Century:

  • Social media may be better for connecting with peers than patrons; do patrons want their library in their Facebook space?
  • Successes in library physical spaces come from being proactive in reaching out to students
  • Virtual reference, why not do more of it? Perhaps even with remote librarians staffing reference desks from their offices, and using cameras and chat software to interact with patrons.
  • Caution advised in using technology just because it’s available
  • Can library infrastructure (including databases, catalogs, etc.) be crammed into the newest technologies? Should it be?
  • When, if ever, is it preferable to refer a subject-specific question to a person, rather than a source?

Here’s a scenario the session got me thinking about: What if whenever a patron visited your library’s website, an automatic chat message would pop up after they’ve been there for 45 seconds, asking if they were finding what they were looking for? If they needed help, they could be connected to a librarian. This would be a proactive outreach to a person at their point of need, hopefully reaching them before a moment of frustration and allowing us to efficiently guide them to an answer. Have you heard of any libraries that have tried something like this?

And we’d also like to know if you can see implementing any of Abrams’ scenarios in your library. Have you already done so? Let us know by dropping a note below.


The automated chat message is an interesting idea, but it would have to designed so that pop-up blockers wouldn't automatically block it. Would staff whose computers have the library web site set as their home page in their browsers mind this feature? Maybe not.

In 2001-2002, my library used HumanClick software for chat reference. That software allowed us to monitor specific web pages within the HumanClick "operator" (librarian) interface and see if anyone was lingering on a page. The librarian could manually send a "need help" icon that would float back and forth the screen. That did yield some chat sessions but I am not sure how many folks we scared the crap out of with that technology. The downside of the technology was that it slowed the loading of the pages that we monitored. If the HumanClick service was down, then the pages we were monitoring couldn't load at all.

HumanClick was long ago acquired by LivePerson, which is still around and used by a number of libraries. I am not sure if LivePerson still has that monitoring functionality.

Hi Stephen, thanks for the note! Regarding the pop-up chat Thing, you’re right: high-volume users of the site would likely be frustrated by the constant pestering. Perhaps the Thing could have a button marked “never ask me again” that’d deposit a cookie or something… And maybe the Thing could be flash-based, to get around the pop-up blocker piece, although not all users have the latest flash viewers… Huh. Whoever said the devil’s in the details was a total genius. HumanClick/LivePerson sounds interesting; I’ll have to look into that. Has anyone else out there had experience using this chat software? Does it still allow for monitoring user sessions live?

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