Referencing the greatest: reference services and web 2.0

Once a stalwart member of the holy trinity of public services...

Once a stalwart member of the holy trinity of public services librarianship, reference and the reference desk have, over the last few years, gradually become to be seen as an anachronistic relic of our past. Declining statistics and the idea that sitting “waiting for business” is inefficient and a waste of the professional librarian's time seem to be the rationale behind many libraries' decisions to shutter the desk. Yet, as the rise of the catchily named sites such as Quora, Reddit, ChaCha and Google helpouts demonstrate, the need for help or question and answer services has far from disappeared. In fact, as SALALMista, David Nolen points out in his 2010 article, even the anti reference desk movement doesn't negate the value of human to human interaction. Accordingly, this column will look at some of these new web 2.0 reference type services to explore what makes these work, and how libraries can learn from their experiments.

Briefly, Quora, Reddit, ChaCha and Google helpouts provide different forms of online help. Quora is more of a standard Q&A service where users can pose text based questions, which are stored for future reference. Reddit is more like a cross between a social bookmarking service and news curation or aggregator where users can vote for the best links on a topic. ChaCha and Google helpouts offer more of a personal connection. Questions posed through ChaCha are answered by a series of guides who are paid for their work. Google Helpouts uses the power of video conference to connect students with teachers, who may charge for their services.

Different Formats

The first common feature of all these new services is that they are online and function through a mix of crowdsourcing and expertise. Quora and Reddit offer a searchable bulletin board format, while ChaCha is based around users texting in their questions. Google Helpouts uses video conferencing to connect teacher and student.  While, by and large, libraries moved beyond the traditional reference desk to embrace chat and text reference a long time ago, these have kind of been the limit of our online innovations. Various libraries have dabbled with alternatives such as Skype or LibAnswers, or Library DIY but overall our online approaches to reference are a bit clunky still, focused around the librarian as expert model and inversely proportional to the amount of research that happens online. Perhaps this doesn't matter. Perhaps we want to focus on building our library as destination, and excellent new programs such as Office Hours or Jesus Alonso Regalado's Librarian with a Latte are meeting our needs. But, judging by examples of people who are already answering each other's research questions, for example on Foursquare, and the scalability that will probably be involved in educational initiatives of the future, maybe this is should something to which we should be paying more attention.


Another interesting aspect of these tools is their approach to trust and reliability. Quora makes people sign in with their real names (and has some mildly famous users) but people can vote for the answers that are the most helpful or useful. Reddit operates in a similar way though users can also gain link or comment karma for posting particularly popular links. In this way, these sites are reflecting our move from a paper to a networked society, and consequently bigger changes in how we establish authority in the world of Web 2.0. After all, as David Weinberger points out, why we should “trust what one person - with the best of intentions - insists is true when we instead could have a web of evidence, ideas, and argument?” So what has that got to do with librarians, I hear you cry! Surely we're some of the most trustworthy people on the planet, right? Well yes, but the problem is that fewer and fewer students seem to enter university with a knowledge of what librarians do. In a way, perhaps this is where the biggest disconnect within research services lies. None of these new tools and techniques will help if students don't trust us as valued members of their research or social networks or if they have no idea that librarians can help them with research questions. In this way, we need to earn the students' confidence, whether it's by breaking down barriers, explaining what we do, promoting our services, or wearing blue.

Critical Models

These are just two aspects of the new reference services that stand out to me- and that could affect library reference services. It will be interesting to see if any of these services takes off; ChaCha, especially, was launched to great fanfare, but has been far less visible since then. Most importantly, by highlighting these services I don't mean to suggest that they form a model we should pursue uncritically. In fact these services may introduce other unknown dynamics, for example, Reddit and other sites which involve voting, have been shown to be far more attractive to male users. More worryingly, if we push to adopt these business models for our educational purposes we run the risk of deprofessionalizing the profession even further. Instead, critical analysis of technologies can help us think constructively about the goals and the future of our services, with no trendy rebrand required.
Alison Hicks
University of Colorado, Boulder