Is the Library Reference Department Defunct?

It happened again. I arrived early to a lecture venue at a public library. I thought. Oo. La. La.   Books and reference sources, but when I looked around there were only a few short stacks of books and no one in sight.   Sigh. Here’s what I remember and why I worry that Reference Departments are going the way of the Woolly Mammoth to the land of extinction.

My love of libraries dates back to my childhood. One summer Mom decided I needed something to do so she signed me up for a summer book club. I had to list all the books I’d read over that summer. The competitive side of me of course filled the sheet with all sorts of titles from biography, to archeology to historical fiction. You get my drift.

One of my favorite places to wander was the reference department. If I had a question, there was a book that could answer it. The staff would help me sort out the truth from the fiction in the answers.

Fast forward to my time living in the Boston suburbs. I was lucky to live in a community with an amazing library. Everyday, I’d take a walk and somehow end up in the library browsing new titles and randomly searching for facts in the reference department. If they didn’t have what I needed, then I could go the regional library with an even larger reference staff and even more books.

Recently I was working on a particularly difficult case and I needed more help than I could find. I drove an hour to that regional library and was aghast to discover their lovely reference stacks were full of DVD’s. Not a book in sight.

“Where are the books,” I asked.

“Oh, we either got rid of them or incorporated them into the general collection.”

Not believing my eyes and ears I asked again. “What happened to the reference department?” The librarian led me to two shelves of books.

“That’s all that’s really left,” he said with sadness.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the immediacy of looking things up online, but I miss wandering the stacks watchful for a serendipitous find. So let me ask you.

When’s the last time you visited a library and looked up an answer in a reference department?

Benjamin Franklin is credited with founding the Library Company of Philadelphia in 1731 and it was the first free library. The very first library in the world was the Royal Library of Alexandria, Egypt. The loss of that library was a great loss. Let’s keep the libraries in our communities from disappearing or becoming unrecognizable.

Try to imagine a world without libraries. These buildings and staff are struggling to remain vital in times focused on bits and bytes rather than letters and ink.

Download my handout “What you can do in a library reference department?”

Let me know the last thing you researched in a public library.

Not everything is online, your public library is an amazing resource in the age of Google. Not sure what you’ll find, download my handout “What you can do in a library reference department?


Download “What Researchers Can Do in a Library Reference Department Cheatsheet”