When I first started working at the library in 1997, I used to tell people that staffing the reference desk was like playing “Jeopardy” for a salary. People would call or come in and have a lot of short-answer questions: “What is the capital of Mozambique?” “Where do I call to complain about my product not working?” “We need to settle a bar bet — how many states are in the union?”
It’s hard to remember now, but in the late 1990s through the early 2000s a flip phone was high tech and the majority of people didn’t have internet access at home. When I started working here the library had only just opened six public-access internet terminals — then a seemingly huge number — and there was still a text-only internet that some people used. The library’s online catalog was only two years old and many people still complained that the physical card catalog no longer existed (I wonder how many younger people today even know what a card catalog is!). Even with internet access at our desks the library maintained a large collection of reference books because some of that information hadn’t yet been digitized.
In that era the library’s quick-answer reference help was vital to people, and such an accepted part of library service that our state library and the American Library Association to this day measure the effectiveness of libraries in part by the number of reference questions that are answered per year.
In today’s era where the majority of people now have cell phones with internet access, most bar bets can be settled without calling the library. But what we at the library do see is that despite the proliferation of cell phones, other aspects of the digital revolution have left many behind, with nowhere else to turn to catch up. Most job applications are now online only — everyone is now expected to fill out complicated multi-page employment applications online or enroll their children in schools of choice through the web. Employers and schools create systems with the underlying assumption that everybody can navigate the online world, even though that’s far from the case.
We librarians now spend more of our time formally and informally training patrons how to use web resources — from using our own online catalog to find books and materials, to using our online databases to retrieve journal articles for school reports, medical information, car wiring diagrams, online magazines, eBooks and eAudiobooks — to just showing people how to use a mouse or touchpad. We have regular classes to teach these things, but just as often teach individuals through one-on-one appointments or walking them through a process or question at the reference desk or the computer help desk.
From the librarian’s perspective, reference questions today versus 20 years ago are fewer, but more complex — however, it’s also more deeply satisfying to fill that need, in the same way that teaching people to fish feels more useful than just giving them a fish. If you’re having trouble navigating the cyber world, whether it’s library resources or other sites, don’t panic — come on in or give us a call, and we’ll point you in the right direction. Just like the old days.