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Find more Notes from the Field
Rebecca: Tell us about yourself and your position.
Dave: I am the associate dean of the Henry Madden Library at California State University–Fresno (otherwise known as Fresno State). I came here in 1997 as head of reference and moved up to administration in 2006. I am still responsible for the library’s User Services areas, including reference, circulation, ILL, and the more specialized units in Music and Government Documents/Maps. I also still work a few hours every week at our reference desk, which has a big sign that says “START Here” to tell students that it is okay to ask for help. I also occasionally work at the circulation desk (which does not have a sign that says “END Here”). I think it is important for administrators to stay connected to the front lines so that we can understand what is going on there.
Unlike reports I hear from other libraries (which I am beginning to assume are all apocryphal), our library is very busy. We expect 1.4 million people through our doors this year, which is remarkably high for a campus with a student population of around 20,000. We staff the “START Here” desk every hour that we are open with students, librarians, or both, depending on the time of day. We still answer lots of questions from our users, mostly in person but also remotely over the phone and via IM (with almost identical numbers for each format).
I like to think that we are a different kind of library than most of our users are familiar with. It’s not just the fact that we have a Starbucks on the second floor—the campus sees us as the central place, which is just what I like. That leads to some challenges, such as accommodating all of the meetings and events that occur here, but it is far better to be overused than underused. One of my duties as associate dean is to sometimes represent the library to the campus-wide administration, and I see from those meetings that our image is very positive across campus.
Rebecca: Can you give us an idea of how your career has changed over the course of time?
Dave: My first day as a professional librarian was August 28, 1978. While I do not remember that first day, I do know that I was scheduled at the reference desk at some point that first week—and have been there to varying degrees ever since. I started as a science librarian (Miami University, Ohio) and became a general reference librarian when I moved to Iowa State University in 1983. I consider my specialization to be general reference, which, contrary to the rewards structure of our profession (especially in academic libraries), is more difficult than being a specialist. I find it much more challenging to know something about everything than to know one subject area in great depth.
Reference work is totally different today than it was back then—and it is exactly the same. The differences are most obvious in the tools that we use. Reference in the 1970s was entirely print-focused. We used card catalogs, reference books, and printed indexes. Finding information was strenuous, and many users gave up after only a short search. If you do not believe me, try looking through a decade’s worth of print Chemical Abstracts and Biological Abstracts—or for nonscientists, try the print versions of ERIC, Psychological Abstracts, or my all-time least favorite, Sociological Abstracts. Communication was almost entirely in person, except for the few users who were willing to call on the phone. Reference books were critical information sources, and we used a lot of encyclopedias, dictionaries, and directories. Some were so important that we purchased multiple copies to accommodate the number of users who consulted them on a daily basis.
Today, of course, our tools are almost entirely electronic. We might use some of the same sources that I mentioned above, but they are accessible to our users anywhere at any time. Searches are over in seconds. The tedious part of research is not finding potential sources but wading through the thousands or even millions of search results. Wikipedia is the encyclopedia of choice, and reference books receive little or no use. While many of the people that we help are in fact still in the library building, others contact us through e-mail or IM (including when they are in the library). Amazingly, there are still not that many who call us on the phone, even though toll charges are a thing of the past and most users have a phone sitting in their purse or pocket.
To me, however, the similarities between then and now are much more striking than the differences. What is the same is that our users still need help—and that they are still willing to come to us for assistance. Users do not know how to effectively benefit from the tools available to them, so they ask librarians for guidance. They do not know how to evaluate the sources that they have found, so they come to us for advice in identifying the best results. They do not know how to cite their resources, so they come to us for help in putting them into APA or MLA format. The Internet and Google have given everyone access to the most comprehensive, current, and amazing information source in human history—but librarians still have a role in helping users make the most of this fantastic resource. We still need to know how to interact with our users so that we can identify and solve their information needs, and I teach these skills in RUSA’s online course on the reference interview. This part of reference is no different than it has ever been.
Rebecca: Let’s talk a bit about Madden Library. How many people work in your department?
Dave: We have 5 full-time reference librarians, plus another 5 librarians (including me) who work at reference for part of our duties. In addition, we have 2 retired reference librarians who still come in and volunteer their services. However, the core of our service is provided by our student assistants. We currently have 12 undergraduate students working for reference and one (or more) of them is on duty every hour that the library is open. They answer questions at the desk and are the primary people for answering phone and IM questions. Students cover the lesser-used hours on their own (after 8 at night and all day on Saturday, for example) and work with librarians during the busier hours. We have used this model since as far back as 1974 (before I was a librarian!), and it works for us.
Rebecca: Is there something unique or different that your library does in its approach to reference or collection development?
Dave: This is not as unique as it was a decade ago, but we check out anything and everything. My feeling is that if you want to use something in our collection you should be able to check it out, so that is what we do. Except for our Special Collections, if we have it, you can check it out and take it home with you. This applies to reference books, periodicals, music, videos, and even microfilm (although no one wants to check out microfilm!). We also loan laptops, tablets, video projectors, and other technologies that students need in today’s learning environment. Loan periods vary (three days for reference books, one week for periodicals, as long as you need it for microfilm), but if you want to use it, we let you check it out.
Related to this is that we keep track of everything that gets used through our circulation system. Books that get checked out get counted—and anything that gets used in the building gets counted for in-house use before it is reshelved. We do this for every area of the building, which tells me exactly what is being used and what is not being used. Because we collect this data, I know that World Book and Encylopaedia Britannica are still being used but that many other titles are not. This data is invaluable in shaping our collections for the future.Rebecca: What advice would you give to a library looking to circulate reference?
Dave: Do it. If you are honest, you know that reference books are not being used in the library as much as they were in the past. So let someone who does want a reference book take it home with them. Also, make sure that you count internal use before you shelve any volumes. Over a period of time you will have the same valuable usage that I have and will know exactly what parts of your collection are used and what portions are not being used. Your users will love you for it.
Rebecca: Let’s switch gears and talk about your time with Booklist. Many of our readers might not know the history of Reference Books Bulletin, so I’ll give a brief rundown: Subscription Books Bulletin was established in 1928 by ALA. In 1968, the publication was renamed Reference Books Bulletin (RBB), and in 1983, the committee became the Reference Books Bulletin Editorial Board. In 2011, the RBB name was dropped entirely, and the committee was known as the Booklist Reference Advisory Board. In 2014, reflecting changes in the publishing world and in libraries, there is less need for a formal board, so we have now made the decision to disband the formal board. What are some of your fondest memories of RBB?
Dave: I have been reviewing for Booklist and RBB since 1984 (I had to look that up!) and was on and off the board several times since then. I think most reviewers will agree, once you get started, it tends to become a lifetime experience. I have mixed feelings about being the chair at the very end of the run—it sometimes feels like I have let the profession down by presiding over its demise. However, people are not using print reference like they used to, and as a result, there is far less need for a section of Booklist just for reference works. And as you have indicated many times in Booklist, a lot of books these days are more “referency”—sort of reference works but with a wider audience. Those are the types of things that still will get used in libraries and that Booklist needs to let the world know about. Including these types of materials in the adult section will give them wider publicity and probably higher sales than if they were in a separate reference section.
My fondest memories from RBB all involve the people that I have worked with. Reviewers have been first rate, and reading others’ reviews taught me a lot about how to tell the profession, in only a few words, why a book should or should not be purchased. Then, there were the various editors. First, it was Helen Wright, who gave me my first opportunity to review. She was a distinguished and very classy elderly black woman who saw some kind of potential in this young, nerdy white guy and started sending me books to review. Apparently she liked what I did, and the books kept coming. After Helen, it was Sandy Whitely. Mary Ellen Quinn followed Sandy and really did a lot to bring RBB into the twenty-first century, including getting RBB content into Booklist Online. And you, Rebecca, have moved RBB more into the collection-management side of the equation, which is what I think the profession needs at this time, in addition to reviews of new publications.
People who become involved with RBB tend to remain involved for a long, long time. Some of the current board members have been writing reviews and participating in meetings for decades, including Jack O’Gorman, Diana Shonrock, and Sarah Watstein. When I first started going to board meetings, one of the regular attendees was Frances Neel Cheney. To me, this was like talking to a living member of the Reference Hall of Fame, since she had been writing reviews since the 1940s, had published ALA’s book Fundamental Reference Sources in 1971, and won the Mudge Award way back in 1962. When I realized that I was on the same board as a legend such as that, my own confidence grew tremendously. Several other Mudge Award winners have been part of RBB during my time, including Jim Rettig, Gail Schlachter, Bob Kieft, and Barbara Bibel. I also suspect that some of the current board members will win that award in the not too distant future.
Rebecca: What surprises you the most about the changes in reference?
Dave: What surprises me is how quickly our reliance on traditional print reference sources has declined. In a decade, we have gone from viewing reference books as the royalty of our collections to viewing them as big old dusty books that are mostly just in the way. What does not surprise me is how constant the need for reference service is. Users of libraries will always need help, and it is incumbent on us reference librarians to be there to assist them. What Samuel Green mentioned at the inaugural ALA Conference in 1876 stays with us today. There is a desire for a personal relationship between librarians and readers—and that is what we today call reference service.
Rebecca: To wrap up, what do you think is the future of reference collections—and reference work, for that matter?
Dave: Reference collections were created so that information that was frequently used would be available to all in a convenient manner. Ironically, the reason that they did not circulate was so that they would be there for the masses who all wanted to use them. With the Internet, that has all changed. I see reference collections shrinking to the point of becoming nonexistent. Some libraries have already moved all their reference books into the main collection—and I think that this is the way that we will all go some day. When the reference books are with the rest of the books, the user who is browsing will get a better sense of all available resources than they would with separate reference and circulating collections.
Reference work, on the other hand, will continue as it has for the past 140-plus years. We will still have users in need of assistance—and reference librarians will still be there to help them. We just will not use classic reference collections to provide that assistance.
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