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My Presentation at ALA on Reference Tools

Last Friday, I was one of four presenters at a day-long preconference workshop sponsored by RUSA at ALA Annual. When I got the invitation, I was more than a bit nervous to be sharing the podium with others whose writings I’d not only been reading but urging others to read. The workshop was titled, “Reference Evolution: Envisioning the Future, Remembering the Past.”

We had nearly 60 attendees in a conference hotel ballroom that alternated between freezing and steamy all day (typical story for hotel meeting rooms). The workshop organizers (led by Sam Stormont and Ryan Shepard) and the speakers made a website in Google Sites for attendees to refer back to after the event was over and to share with their colleagues. Three of the four presenters’ slide presentations are available on the site (the fourth should be there soon).

First up was Joe Janes, who gave a great keynote presentation on what’s changed in reference and what’s stayed, often for not good reasons, the same as ever. I was particularly struck by a lovely black and white photo Janes shared of a reference desk from the early 1900s. He suggested that if you asked reference librarians if they’d like to work there, most would likely say yes. But, he asked us, what would surgeons say if you showed them a similarly old photo of an operating theater and asked if they’d like to work there.

Amy VanScoy spoke next about why librarians should be more reflective about their personal philosophy of reference. She also argued effectively for the need to act consciously on that philosophy while working reference and to share and discuss our reference philosophies.

I spoke next about the tools we use in reference. I mentioned in passing the tools that we set up so our patrons can send us questions (email, chat, IM, phone numbers for calls and text messages, etc.) and focused my talk more on the tools we use to respond to those questions and to enrich the interactions (screenshots, screencasts, page pushing, tutorials, subject guides, knowledgebases, FAQs, etc.) I don’t think I did as good a job as I had intended in making the case for the way that our communication tools and our interaction helper tools are increasingly becoming interconnected and integrated. The links for the tools are all on my speaker page on the workshop website. You view the slides on Slideshare (each slide has notes underneath it, which you can view in Slideshare or if you download the PowerPoint file).

The final speaker was Kathleen Kern, who talked about the need for reference to “refine the focus” by accepting the disintermediation that’s taken place as users have gotten used to searching on their own. She also suggested that we rethink how we can fit more into the “flow” of our users lives.

After lunch we had two separate breakout sessions. For the first session, attendees chose among three different discussion groups they could join: making reference data work harder; we lost ready ref, now what?; and research consultations/one-on-one appointments. Notes from those groups will be shared on the breakout sessions page the workshop site soon.

The second breakout session was a big hit. Students from Joe Janes’ reference class at the University of Washington iSchool had come up with the idea when they were prompted to design an assignment for next semester’s reference class. In this breakout session, attendees broke up into small groups (2-4 people) and tried to come up with a list of three websites that would be useful for helping the greatest number of people on the widest range of topics. The kicker of this assignment: you had to assume that Google and all search engines were shut down, as was Wikipedia. I won’t spoil the surprise of the winning answer, as Joe Janes will be writing about it in a forthcoming column that he does regularly for American Libraries.

We had a great mix of attendees at the workshop: not only did we have the expected crowds from public and academic libraries but also a fair number from special libraries. One of the attendees, Lucy M. Lockley, wrote up a nice post where she discusses the workshop.

I wish I could have stayed longer at ALA so I could have attended a long list of RUSA events that looked interesting. Maybe next year…

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  1. caleb says

    so glad to hear this went well! thanks for the links and slides.

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