Reference: it’s not just for libraries, anymore
You know those ads for KGB? I avoid tv commercials as much as possible, but even I haven’t been able to miss these (full disclosure: I first noticed them because they feature Sean Gunn of Gilmore Girls fame). But every time I see them I have this little moment of frustration, thinking “This is just text-message reference, for a fee. Libraries do this for free.” Well, some libraries do, anyway, and that’s a problem.
Libraries traditionally have not been very nimble organizations – we don’t have the response speed we need when new technologies are developed, so we are slow to take advantage, even of those things that are right in our wheelhouse. Which means that while libraries are still struggling to get on board with SMS and IM for reference, Aardvark is launching an iPhone app that allows people to ask questions of other users and get responses back within minutes. People are crowdsourcing questions on Twitter instead of calling their local library reference desk. As I pointed out awhile back, it doesn’t matter if we provide “better quality” or more authoritative answers if no one is using our services because there’s something quicker and easier that meets their needs.
Of course there’s a financial dynamic involved – it would be great if libraries could all afford to keep a developer on staff, creating apps and finding ways to adapt new technologies for library use, but that’s just not realistic. But I think the bulk of the problem is in our organizational culture. We are trying to adopt the new without making any sacrifices, and it won’t work. Trying to do everything just results in slow and cumbersome organizations. As leaders and managers, we need to prioritize those things that will keep our organizations relevant and able to serve effectively and efficiently in our communities, and make the tough decisions about what to let go.