Via Jason Griffey’s Twitterstream, I came across this announcement from Facebook, where they announce the beta rollout of a question-answering service.

I say, this is the death of library reference. Not that this Facebook service specifically will kill reference. But the fact that Facebook has jumped on the Q&A bandwagon is a signal that the last nail on the coffin of library reference was put in place some time ago. Just when that happened is irrelevant. The salient point here is that Facebook entering the Q&A market is like the NY Times reporting on Steampunk: a sure sign that that ship has sailed.

Look, if you pay attention to this sort of news, you read about a new social Q&A service being launched every every few weeks. There’s even an open source platform for developing your own social Q&A service, StackExchange. Social Q&A sites are popping up like daisies. A new service is not even big news any more… the only reason the Facebook service is news is that it’s Facebook. The bar for entry into the social Q&A “market” has dropped low enough that anyone can enter.

Now, just because there’s a market where once upon a time there was only one player, does not mean that player will go out of business. Ford still exists; IBM still exists. But it does mean that player will have to change their business model: note that IBM is no longer in the hardware business.

I wrote a lot more on this, but I’m not going to post it because it ended up going off on a tangent. Maybe I’ll revise and post it sometime.

The conclusion I want to come to here is just this: A market now exists for fulfilling information needs. Libraries are one player in that market, but only one player, and not the best known or maybe even the best. The bar to entry into that market is low, so there will be more entrants. When what was formerly a solo operator in a market space suddenly faces competition, said operator must change its business model or go out of business. My conclusion? Libraries need to give up the notion that question answering is a core service of the library. It’s not. It’s something we do to add value to the other stuff libraries do. Maybe not drop it entirely, but narrow its focus to issues that the library, and only the library can deal with. We need to figure out what the issues are that only the library can deal with, and be really honest with ourselves about it. In other words, what’s our market niche? And, since libraries are not really in competition with the other players in this market (since no one is making money from answering questions), we need to become ok with outsourcing some questions to other players in that market space.