The Future of Reference

Sometimes I look at the possibilities for knowledge in this world and I have to sit down.  Thinking back to when I was a kid, we were starved by today’s standards.  I remember being about seven or eight and sitting around with my friends trying to think up bad words.  I think we came up with about four, and some of them were kind of iffy by the standard of the truly offensive.  Ditto with sex, my knowledge in childhood was this cobbled together patchwork of rumor, hearsay and bald-faced lies. These are the most obvious examples where I felt a lack of good information, but there’s also the fact that if I wanted to know how tall the president was, I would have to go through a complicated process involving books, magazines, and possibly quite a few adults.
Now I can simply type “how tall is president Obama” in my Google search box and come up with over a million possible answers.  I don’t have to go anywhere, I don’t have to interact with any hostile natives in the library, and I don’t have to shuffle through books or magazine. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a kid nowadays.  Wouldn’t you just be so worldly?  If something you didn’t know came up, you could just pretend to be texting and secretly Google it on your phone.
So if everyone knows everything, and it’s all right there, why do we need reference services?
One thing this semester’s reference class has driven home is that the success of a reference transaction is measured in more ways than just accuracy.  A reference transaction is also an opportunity for patron service, and patrons’ needs encompass elements of social interaction, convenience, and discovery as well as just a quick answer.
For a long time libraries were the only information game in town.  Now that patrons can use the internet to answer their own reference questions, we worry that patrons won’t need us at all.  Google and other search engines are superior to librarians by more than one measurement.  They are available at any time, answer ready reference very quickly, and are increasingly able to find results for more complex natural language queries.  Users don’t have to understand the difference between a subject and a keyword search, and they don’t have to deal with any sort of social interaction (including the embarrassment of ignorance or questions of a delicate nature).
So the future of reference has two possibilities.  We can try to out-Google Google.  We can become quicker and more convenient.  We can try to hammer our technology and conventions into a more intuitive and user-friendly shape.  Or we can embrace the ways that we differ.
Our strength is in our humanity.  Librarians have critical thinking skills.  We have the ability to make judgments about the quality and relevance of resources, and to make reasoned arguments for our choices.  We can see and describe the larger shape of human knowledge (rather than just presenting a list of resources).  We can choose the unpopular and the obscure, serving those who are not looking for the most frequently chosen result.  We can teach.  We’re real people, with the potential for developing warm relationships with our patrons.
The fact of the matter is that most patrons don’t ask a reference question in order to learn how to research.  The ask because they want to know something, even if they’re not sure what that is.  Librarians should not be satisfied with just being Information Service Providers, we should also strive to be Knowledge Facilitators.