Teen Librarian Toolbox
Inside Teen Librarian Toolbox

Sunday Reflections: Do we still need Reference? Do we still need Librarians? (aka Why Turning Libraries into Wal-Mart is a Bad Idea)

One recent Saturday morning I woke up and our toilet didn’t work. My first instinct was to get The Mr. to come fix it, but he works nights and had just gotten home so I wanted to let him sleep. I loaded my kids into the car and we walked into our local Lowe’s store. The first associate I asked for help didn’t know what I needed, but he walked me to the plumbing counter where I proceeded to ask for “the thingy in the toilet behind the thingy.” And yes, I really did say thingy twice. After he asked me a few questions he knew exactly what I needed and we got the part. I even somewhat successfully replaced it myself when I got home, although that is not the point of this story, the customer service at Lowe’s is.

Not too long ago a man came into my library wearing slacks, a button up shirt and a tie. He signed up to use a computer, which sits right next to the Reference Desk where I sit. After a few minutes working he started asking me some questions. It turns out that he was recently laid off and he was trying to apply for jobs. So we began talking resumes. He asked if he needed one, how to do one, etc. We got some reference materials and I showed him some templates on the computer. Then he teared up and said he would apply everywhere, even Sonic if he had to, because he just wanted to take care of his family. That day he needed a Reference Librarian in the same way that I needed a plumbing expert at Lowe’s.

Every day I interact with patrons who need help researching recent medical diagnosis, finding ways to fix their cars or AC because they can’t afford to pay someone, and more. And every day I help students research topics for papers or science fair projects. I often even help teachers pull materials together on topics that they are teaching in their classroom. They all need a Reference Librarian.

But more and more, large library systems are doing away with Reference all together. Or combining Reference with Circulation. What happens is they put everyone at the Circulation desk and it becomes a one stop shopping place. There are lots of reasons that this is happening, but some of them include wanting to decrease staff (thus decreasing staff costs), wanting to cut down on the number of points of service a patron is sent to (although even in the grocery store you may go to the deli counter, the bakery, the wine counter and more before you go to check out and at each location you will get a trained staff member who can answer your more specific questions as opposed to a cashier who may, if you are lucky, know how to answer your question), and because many people erroneously believe that we don’t need Reference anymore because you can just look everything up on the Internet.

I have a lot of concerns about this trend in libraries. For one, I think we are marketing libraries incorrectly when we stop hiring librarians and putting them in a place to provide quality patron service. Library patrons can go buy a copy of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green in paperback at Target for around $8.00. They can buy a Spongebob or Dora book for around $4.00. But  there is nobody there who can help them find other books to read if they have already read it and are looking for something new. There is no one there who can help a community grow readers. And there is nobody there who can make the curriculum connections between that book and other books that students, teachers and parents come in looking for. There is no one there who can take them beyond the 10 to 20 bestsellers that are available at your local discount big box store. Libraries have always thrived in part because we are those people that take individual community members beyond the most recent bestseller and help them discover new titles and grow as readers. Librarians grow a community of readers.

The other reason libraries thrive is because they have qualified children’s, YA and adult services librarians who build local collections that not only meet the needs of local communities, but challenge them to grow. When a teen walks into my library and asks about a book, they are very likely to walk out with five. This is because I have spent 20 years reading ya, reviewing ya, buying ya, building ya displays, and doing ya reader’s advisory. When I’m not on the desk and a person comes in asking about ya, whoever is working the Reference Desk at the time will usually call and ask me to come out and help them. And if someone comes in and starts asking about certain other areas that are not my strong suite, I will also call the best person. But if I’m not available, every person at the Reference Desk has the training and/or education to help answer the patron’s question. That is part of the value of the library that we need to be selling to our local communities: we have information specialists who can help you be successful in using the library.

Which is why we need multiple points of service. Some people come in to the library, get what they need, and just want to check out quickly. That is the value of the Circulation Desk. Then, if they have a deeper need, they can go the Reference Desk where more time can be given to ask the right questions, explore not only the catalog but the books in the stacks (sometimes I go through multiple book indexes to answer a question), and to help connect readers to books. It is interesting to me that many administrators will talk about the need to conform to a Wal-Mart model and go to one point of service for the convenience of the customer when even at Wal-Mart you have to go to a customer service desk for any type of transaction beyond the simple checking out. And the truth is that people don’t go to Wal-Mart expecting great customer service, they go there to get the lowest price. Libraries already have the lowest prices in town, but what we can offer is great customer service to help the members of our communities explore, learn and grow.

And I hope we all know that the Internet is often not the best or even quickest source of information.

I also fear that they may be some classism involved in the opinion of higher up administrators regarding the belief that no one uses Reference anymore. You see, over my twenty years as a librarian I have learned that the majority (though not all) of patrons who use Reference Services tend to be lower educated patrons, often coming from areas of poverty. For example, we have many patrons that are business people or students who will come in and use the Internet and they need little to no help because they have access at home or work and can navigate computers quite successfully. These are the same patrons who can also come in and look books up on their own on the library PACs. A majority – though of course not all – of the patrons that ask for help are those who don’t have computer access at home so they need more help navigating the library computers or finding books. Sometimes they are older patrons who just chose never to engage with 21st century technology, sometimes they truly have complex questions that even challenge the librarians, but often they are people with lower education and less access to technology so they need the time, attention and skills of a Reference Librarian. Administrators, however, tend to hang out with other business people in the community and it is easy to forget that our local communities are very diverse in education, access to technology, and the skills necessary to successfully find materials in a library.

Whenever someone says that we don’t need libraries anymore because everyone is online, I know that person is speaking from a place of privilege and forgets that 1 out of 5 children go to bed hungry every night. I know that person is not one of the patrons sitting in the library parking lot at 9:00 PM at night with a baby sleeping in the backseat just so they can get a Wifi connection so they can answer emails and apply for jobs. I know that person isn’t one of the more than 70% of families in our community that qualifies for free or reduced lunch when they suggest that libraries don’t need books anymore because everyone just reads ebooks on their tablets. I know that person hasn’t worked a public service desk in a library any time recently because if they did, they would know that our communities still need libraries and our patrons still need librarians to help them answer questions, to help them navigate the library, and to help them make connections with books.

It’s true, we can stop hiring actual librarians and save money on our payroll, but what will it be costing our communities in the end? And what does it cost libraries in terms of marketing when we are losing one of our primary marketing points by decreasing the value of the library and the quality of service our patrons receive. I don’t know if you have noticed lately, but Wal-Mart and big box stores are getting a lot of bad publicity. I’m not sure these are the business models we want to be following. If we really believe that communities thrive when the people within those communities are challenged to grow, think and succeed, then maybe we should keep hiring Reference Librarians. Add your Makerspaces – I love mine! – and programming, but let’s not forget to make sure that we have the people inside the building that can help our patrons be successful in the educational part of library services, whether it be connecting them to a story that challenges them to think or helping them answer specific questions.

Communities still need libraries, and libraries still need librarians. And we need to pay them livable salaries that honor the education and experience they have earned.


  1. And, unfortunately for us, the lower income, lower educated patrons I have dedicated my career to helping rarely march on City Hall and demand that we keep library services. You have done a good job reminding all of us that what we do is important and we should never let administrators forget that.

  2. If our local library's reference desk is any indication, they certainly are needed. After dropping off my son to volunteer, I would spend the two hours mainly at the library working on my laptop near the reference desk. During those two hours, both reference librarians were hardly idle. Between patrons asking a myriad of questions in person or by telephone, they hardly had any downtime before the next person would come up to the desk with a question. Each and every time, they were answered with the greatest patience and knowledge. That was just two hours once a week I witnessed this.

  3. Hi Debra!
    Your comment leads me to another one of my soap boxes. You are right, lower middle income and poverty level families are not often the ones who are likely to march on City Hall to demand funding for libraries, or anything really. In part, because they have learned that their voices don't matter; they feel that they have no power. We have politicians and administrators talking about poverty and they almost always don't have any recent experience of living in poverty nor do they consult those who are. These people have learned that they aren't respected by our society and they have often given up. Plus, many of them are so busy just trying to make it through each day that they are emotionally and physically exhausted, sometimes working 2 or more part-time jobs just to try and make ends meet. Our elected officials who are supposed to serve us all have their ears turned toward the rich and powerful and the needs and concerns of the every day person aren't being heard. So you are right, we must keep talking to administrators and leaders about the needs of the patrons we serve, all of them. Although I feel like maybe all of us who aren't ridiculously rich may be disenchanted with the political process lately. It certainly feels like money is the only thing that talks sometimes.

    Thanks for your comment 🙂

  4. Yes! I love to hear these type of stories. Thank you 🙂

  5. Reading this, I realize I fell into the category who pondered, 'why librarians?' Why a reference desk? Are people not able to look up a book on the catalog themselves? To be self sufficient information gatherers…

    And that is unfair of me. It is assumptive and rude. It shows my income/education/privileged background and I am a bit ashamed.
    The metaphor of the toilet thingy helps illustrate it for me. Sure, I could of done research into plumbing at home prior to going to Home Depot… But I very likely could still be loss on what exactly I need from the options available. And this all assumes I have the availability and the ability to research info prior to seeking end result.

    I have been working here for 6 weeks so far. I am the teen go to and at the reference desk. This is my first library employment experience. Even so, I hope to be even more compassionate about my job and my patrons now. I feel a bit enlightened.

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