What has happened to reference? Part 2

Last month I blogged about the dramatic decrease in the number of reference questions, not just at Davidson but at colleges and universities across the nation. I made the not especially bold or risky assertion that technology is one reason; everyone with a smartphone is now carrying an amazingly powerful tool for information-seeking. Today I advance another explanation: the “de-librarianization” of school libraries since the 2008 economic downturn.

As cash-strapped school districts have tried to cut expenses without impacting student performance on the all-important tests, librarians have been among the casualties. According to a 2011 article in Library Media Connection, “all grade levels and district sizes are affected; cuts are widespread, no longer most likely to occur in elementary schools and rural, small, or poor districts. Where positions are eliminated, media centers are staffed by unlicensed support staff, technical support, or volunteers.”

If students in elementary and secondary school aren’t having the experience of getting research instruction and coaching from librarians, they probably arrive at college without expectations of such interactions. Indeed, Project Information Literacy’s large-scale studies have found that students ask family, friends, and professors before they ask librarians, and the numbers of students asking librarians for help is declining.

There may well be other reasons today’s students don’t ask reference questions in anywhere near the numbers students once did. In my next post, though, I will muse about why I think “what’s happened to reference?” (with its implied “and how can we make it like it used to be”) is the wrong question. Stay tuned.

About Jill Gremmels

Leland M. Park Director of the Davidson College Library
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