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.
i am not really convinced that “libraries” have a core services at all. in the loosiest, goosiest terms, i can come up with a mission or goal for all libraries, to help a community thrive – be they a community of citizens, or scholars, or goats – but i can’t think of a service that furthers that goal for all libraries, unless we define the service in equally vague terms: a library helps a community thrive bye enabling reflection and inquiry.
now, reference service is so much more narrow of an idea than “inquiry”, but i do mean that we are in the business of answering questions whether we like it or not.
i am recently intrigued by the idea that reference services aren’t used more because they don’t meet so many peoples’ needs. this lets me put “digital reference” in its so many forms safely into the category of trying to meet more peoples’ needs rather than act as if it is some savior.
and this keeps bringing me back to the idea that reference services, defined narrowly, as they usually are, see less and less use and appear less and less relevant. defined too broadly, they can become meaningless.
the striking differences between reference services and the online q+a service idea, to me, are participation and transparency.
patrons can’t participate in reference as answerers and they can’t see how its done. other types of services meet these needs.
the position of power held by the reference librarian, plus all the prestidigitation involved in getting something published and then being able to find it in a library lends authority to her answers.
and in some senses this is good, right? an authoritative answer saves the patron from the hard labor of discovering truth for themselves. but it is also bad: authorities oppress, and prevent patrons from participating in the creation of that truth.
i’m spiraling out of control here. hope you’re well
aardvark was my favorite foray into social reference. i don’t honestly expect much from this endeavor by the FB. i think the essential problem that FB now faces is that, where it used to be a side-stream to peruse and reflect upon our own social groups, it has since expanded to become THE stream … we can no longer step away from the web and its information overload and take a break with FB; it has become the web and it is information overload.
all of which is off-topic a bit, i guess. i agree with the things caleb said, though i think it’s simpler than all that.
libraries are an amalgamation of every service they provide; no service is core, each appeals to a different audience, and like a reality tv star we try and get as many demographics as possible to “vote” for us. in other words, we try and have the variety of services that will appeal to the broadest audience; reference is just one of those.
lots of other companies do reference in one way or another. i’m thinking mainly of social sites like yahoo answers, and those SMS services that you see tv ads for. none of them do exactly what libraries do, though, so i really don’t think they’ll ever replace us, though it will be interesting to see what new things they bring to the table.
if anything i hope that libraries will be able to, in some way, benefit from the competition and the innovations that it will bring along.
I still think Reference services have a place in libraries. This Facebook Q/A thing just seems like another place to get answers to “low hanging fruit” type questions (where a basic answer suffices). What library reference services offer is a whole gamut of learning on the side. More often than not, when I sit down with a student to explore an information need, I teach them a lot more than they expected to learn about such things as:
– Asking the right question
– Developing their thesis topic
– Searching in the right sources (free or subscription)
– Evaluating the information they uncover
– Appropriate use of information
– All that other information literacy stuff
– And of course, troubleshooting their use of computer software
– And also followup opportunities, if further research is needed
I don’t see how any non-library reference service is really going to replicate (much less replace) this ability to teach while answering. Maybe if the money walks away from libraries entirely…then you have a problem.
On the other hand, I do wonder how useful the reference desk is in being the place these interactions should happen. And librarians need to be online much, much more—especially using tools like Adobe Connect or Skype to interact richly form a distance. If all we can offer is email and IM, we WILL lose our added value.
Where Others Have Failed: Facebook Begins Beta Testing (Very Early Stages) Q & A Service; « ResourceShelf
[…] Jeffery Pomerantz from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has an excellent post on his blog focusing on 1) the fact that Facebook is now beginning a beta to have a Q&A service. Yes, from […]
Not sure what this says about reference, or about your relationship to reference, but where did you get the idea that IBM wasn’t in the hardware biz? here’s an article you may want to “refer” to on that subject.
Hi. I don’t agree. Take a look at feedback and % rates on Yahoo Answers – there are certain categories where the best answers & most contributions are coming from librarians via Enquire. Take a look at this link for more details. http://enquire-uk.oclc.org/content/view/97/55/
It doesn’t matter if the library staff involved are actually based in a library or not, as it’s still a library service provided by library staff and information professionals.
I would say that answering questions and reference work is a core part of library services. There are many other services too, but reference work is just as important.
You say that “The bar for entry into the social Q&A “market” has dropped low enough that anyone can enter.” That might be true, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the answers provided are going to be any good, just becasue you’ve taken 5 minutes to set one up. You need the support of people with knowledge to make it work – librarians have that knowledge or know where you can find that information.
I’ve got a few questions that give me pause before I am willing to agree that:
(a) the launch of Facebook Q&A marks the tipping point that will finally bring commercial, social Q&A services out of the hustings and into the limelight where mainstream acceptance and use is finally achieved
(b) that these social Q&A services will become so popular that they signal the “death of library reference.”
My questions are:
(1) Will the effect be felt equally across all kinds of libraries or will some kinds of libraries see reference services affected more than others? What kind of libraries are talking about here? All libraries? Just the public libraries? Mostly the public libraries but partly the academic libraries?
(2) What does the death of library reference look like? No questions are asked? A precipitous but not complete dropoff? A slow but steady decline?
(3) Are the people who use or who would consider using social Q&A services that same kinds of people that ask reference questions in academic libraries? in public libraries? in other kinds of libraries?
(4) Will people ask the same kind of questions in a social QA&A service that they would have in a reference service? Will this vary according the the type of user and the type of library?
(5) Is the reputation of social Q&A services strong enough (or will it be strong enough in the next few years) to generate repeat customers, brand loyalty, and the all-important word of mouth that will make success possible?
(6) How do you want to define reference? If it includes instruction (guidance, teaching, consultation, etc.) as much as pointing to and recommending resources, then I’m with you. I am not sure that what the social Q&A services offer go much beyond (from what I’ve seen) from question answering (opinions, “facts,” advice about how to solve a simple problem, etc.)
I agree that that there are a number of online services (all those social Q&A service) and sites (e.g., Wikipedia) that have indeed cut into our reference stats, namely in the area of ready reference questions. I’m not up on the literature enough to know for sure if academic libraries or public libraries (or both) are now answering fewer questions that are more involved and time intensive (but it sure feels like it at the academic library where I work). Finding a market niche (or maybe marketing and advertising it better) is definitely something most kinds of libraries should be doing more of, especially if people who may not have ever asked a reference question or even know that reference is a service libraries offer (and this would likely be most Americans) are seeing what may appear to them as a new service (“Hey, didja you know that there’s a way now to help finding answers to a question you have?”)
I like the idea from Caleb that a library’s mission should include “enabling reflection and inquiry.” At an academic library, supporting students and faculty in the process of inquiry is a rich concept that, when unpacked, touches on a lot issues relating to the research process and the creation of knowledge. A piece of that inquiry process includes helping our students and faculty recognize what discovery tools might best serve their information needs and how to use the bewildering variety of interfaces for those discovery tools to find the kinds of resources that will help them. Reference in all its forms is essential for supporting these parts of the inquiry process. If our discovery tools played nice with each other, were more user friendly, then perhaps we’d see a decline in reference questions related to the use of these tools (although the refinement of search tools is probably a Sisphyean task, as just as we work to improve one tool, a new one pops up that needs to be integrated with the ones we already have).
There is something to be said for Caleb’s point about the value of transparency in Q&A services. I think we reference librarians should be exploring more ways to expose our own thinking and work with patrons, to making our work more visible and less magical to the user.
I’m eager, Jeff, to see the tangents you went off on as you wrote this post. Let’s keep this conversation going, as it looks like it could be a really rich one.
Are Libraries and Social Q&A Services Competing? – Digital Reference
[…] Pomerantz has launched an interesting conversation with his post, “Facebook Social Q&A Service Is the Death of Library Reference.” He argues that with Facebook now getting into the growing business of social Q&A services (such […]
I really don’t want to engage in this conversation. This was a rant. The name of this blog is PomeRantz for a reason.
Still, I stand corrected on a few points.
1. As Eric Hellman points out above, IBM is still in the hardware business. IBM is no longer in the microcomputer business, and I overgeneralized.
2. As Gary Price points out here http://www.resourceshelf.com/2010/06/02/where-others-have-failed-facebook-begins-beta-testing-very-early-stages-q/ Mahalo and ChaCha both pay answerers, so someone is making money. I should have just stopped with “libraries are not really in competition with the other players in this market.” I still say that’s more or less true. There is a large — though of course not infinite — supply of information needs and questions out there, and we’re nowhere near the Q&A service event horizon. The question answering market is not zero-sum, at least not yet. Maybe library reference services will eventually be in competition with social Q&A services, but I don’t believe they are yet, as there are more than enough questions to go around. I’d suggest that if reference services’ volume is declining, that’s not the fault of social Q&A services.
Also, I was unclear about something: I’m mostly referring to academic library reference services. I usually am referring to academic libraries when I write about libraries. I admit that I tend to use the word “libraries” more broadly than I should. It’s a hazard of the trade: I work in a School where our focus tends to be on academic libraries, and my research has mostly been with academic libraries.
I’m happy for the library blogosphere to continue this conversation. But I probably won’t have much more to say about this. Like I wrote yesterday, this ship has sailed. Social Q&A is here to stay, like it or not. Libraries — all kinds — need to figure out how to coexist with them. I say that will involve outsourcing answering of some questions or types of questions to them. Which will reduce the number of questions or types of questions answered in libraries — all kinds. Do I really believe that question answering in libraries is dead? No. That was hyperbole. Do I believe that we should be teaching Reference as a core course in library school? No.
“Do I believe that we should be teaching Reference as a core course in library school? No.”
not by you anyway 😮
seriously, you our our leader. where else can digital reference men congregate?
no, no, seriously. if library schools define reference narrowly, i agree, it isn’t a core course.
Yeah, Caleb, you’re right, this is probably an indication that I need to not be teaching Reference any more. I’ve been trying in the past few years to move the course to be broader, and take in social Q&A, liaison librarianship, & other service models — but I think that fundamentally the course just needs to be ripped apart & reconstituted from scratch. As a course on education, or customer service, or something, or both. To be honest, I think the whole ILS curriculum needs to be ripped apart & reconstituted. So this is a much larger issue, obviously. And since changing anything in higher ed takes years, I’m a bit discouraged by the whole process these days. So maybe I just need to take a break from it for a while.
What’s funny though, is that I still find Reference and social Q&A and question answering generally to be really interesting as a research front. Talk about the divide between research and practice: I’m happy to study it, but I’m kvetching about it being done? What doublethink is that?
I agree that the past decade has seen an erosion of our role as information providers to the public, particularly in the simpler factual searches we term “ready reference.” It is hard to say just how far this will go, but with budgets, hours and jobs getting slashed in publicly-funded libraries across the country, many of us wonder if the current downsizings will turn out to be more than just the fallout of a bad economic season, but the lasting effects of our shrinking relevance in the public’s view? Amidst the proliferation of new gadgets and networks for accessing and sharing information, are libraries losing the battle for hearts and minds? Lately I do wonder if we are unknowlingly witnessing the end of a golden age of public libraries? Amidst uncertainty about our changing role in society and library futurists’ conflicting views, there are some certainties that I think work in our favor in the years ahead.
Ten or twenty years from now, we will still cherish our need for Story in all its forms. This is one of our species’ defining traits, crucial to how we make meaning and understand the world, and it won’t be going anywhere soon. The books and reading craze, going strong for several centuries now, can only continue to grow as new formats are added to the old. We’ll still be enjoying such newer fangled forms as movies and audiobooks as well, plus maybe a few things nobody’s thought of yet. As physical barriers fall the range of available works is growing, leading to an increasing diversity of choices. When it comes to navigating this perplexity, readers will continue to rely heavily on various peer and interest groups, and – if we don’t completely blow it – they might just rely on libraries as well.
The branding work is already done. Although it is a prejudice not so widely held by card carrying members of the information sciences, if you ask the proverbial man-in-the-street what libraries are, they’ll tell you that’s where the books are. Despite decades of efforts to identify and legitimize ourselves as purveyors of Information, our enduring brand with the public is Reading. We should be thankful for this, for it is precisely those taxpayers who have bought into the library-as-information-center mantra who now love to compare us with buggy-whip factories in the comment streams of our own struggling blogs. Yes, theirs is a myopic view that little reflects the value of our skills and the depth and nature of the citizenry’s rights and needs in an increasingly privatized information economy. Yet the glib sense that Google has made libraries obsolete is taking hold among a growing segment of the middle class, and our mayors and city councils are listening.
On the other hand, any idiot is supposed to know that you can get free books at the library: http://failblog.org/2008/06/04/book-rental-fail/
But hold on a minute: isn’t library usage up these days? Yes it is, and the library boom doesn’t stem from all the information we’re doling out to newly unemployed job seekers. Most of our increased usage is happening right where the majority of our business has always been: the Story business. We are preservers and purveyors of fiction, non-fiction, kid’s books, graphic novels, audiobooks, movies: this is what keeps our doors open. If we do not adequately serve the needs of readers (and by readers I include listeners and viewers), we fail to capitalize on a tidal wave of free marketing brought to us courtesy of the recession, and may lose all those new patrons as soon as the economy improves and they refresh their accounts with Amazon and audible.com. At this crucial juncture, we need to stop taking our primary clientele for granted. To remain viable, we need to serve our readers.
I don’t mean just buying more materials: we’ll never be competitive with retailers when it comes to availability of the latest hot thing. But we have one commodity that is pure gold in today’s marketplace: impartial expertise. We lose sight of what a big deal it is to cultural consumers that a librarian or reader’s advisor doesn’t work on commission and isn’t trying to sell them anything. Even better if that librarian knows what they’re talking about, and has good customer service skills. And there’s one in their own community, another vital selling point for a species that persists in space and time, that increasingly values locality, and that persistently desires contact and interaction with other people, however mediated. The public already thinks we’re smart, but are we book smart? Every time we fail to serve a cultural consumer’s need for guidance, we confirm the public’s suspicion that we are a pricey luxury, rather than a valuable resource that can improve their quality of life.
If libraries do not wish to face the rude awakening recently visited on print journalism, we need to reinvest in adding value to our core business with readers’ services and reader’s advisory in all its forms. We must seek to be hosts and facilitators for the various constellations of readers both within and across our communities, in person and online. Let us bring to bear all of our professional curiosity and smarts to become better and more consistent at the challenging practice of helping the book find its reader, the reader their book. Readers services cannot be a sideline specialty: it must be front and center on our masthead, and something we expect of all our librarians. Let us start taking browsers as seriously as we do information seekers, and make our catalogs not just utilitarian junctions to be got through, but happening places to hang around in. Let us celebrate story and its role in our lives and communities.
Ten years from now, I hope to see libraries as vital as they currently are, if not moreso. For this to happen, they will exist as places where the public can find not just FREE books, movies and other cultural products, but enhanced by a friendly knowledgeable human who serves as a guide to the reader of fact and fiction alike, to (as Emerson wrote) “guide him to the class of works & presently to the precise author who has written as for him alone. Could not a gentleman be found to occupy a desk … as the Library Counsellor, to whom the librarian could refer inquiries on authors & subjects.” To survive and flourish we need to be more than just a reference librarian: we need to be a reader’s advisor.
How effectively can Facebook Q&A conduct a reference interview? I think we all know that patrons often ask the “wrong” question initially.
Patrons often tend to ask broad questions like “I need information on (fill in the blank)” or “I need to look at copies of the town’s annual reports.”
Without a human intermediate to ask “Okay…what is it about (fill in the blank) that you are trying to find out,” it seems any online Q&A service will be, at best, another search engine.
Additionally, how effectively can a search engine find answers to questions which are contained only in NON-DIGITIZED information?
Okay. This is what struck me first about all of this: Facebook is targeting kids and teens (i.e. the FUTURE) with this. I’m a librarian and my teen does not have any use for the library when it comes to finding the answer to a question. She googles, uses ChaCha, ANYTHING but ask a librarian. This pains me to no end, as you can imagine. But personal pain aside, in my opinion a Facebook Q&A will be pure gold as far as the 10 – 18 crowd is concerned. Scary. And David W., my wise coworker, while I agree with your concept of “Story” being so important to our lives, is the definition of “Story” not changing in the eyes of these young people? “Story” seems to be a text message, an IM, or a quick ChaCha inquiry. Everything has to be “right now”…… Storytelling requires a little moment of listening, reflecting, and thinking – by the old definition – things that seem to be disappearing from the horizon. Of course, there will always be readers. But how many I wonder?
Marty, I offer you Samuel Johnson, from Rambler #50:
“It has always been the practice of those who are desirous to believe themselves made venerable by length of time, to censure the newcomers into life, for want of respect to grey hairs and sage experience, for heady confidence in their own understandings, for hasty conclusions upon partial views, for disregard of counsels, which their fathers and grandsires are ready to afford them, and a rebellious impatience of that subordination to which youth is condemned by nature, as necessary to its security from evils into which it would be otherwise precipitated, by the rashness of passion, and the blindness of ignorance.
Every old man complains of the growing depravity of the world, of the petulance and insolence of the rising generation. He recounts the decency and regularity of former times, and celebrates the discipline and sobriety of the age in which his youth was passed: a happy age, which is now no more to be expected, since confusion has broken in upon the world, and thrown down all the boundaries of civility and reverence.”
The kids are alright, and they’re still reading.
Daniel Cooper Clark
There’ll always be people asking questions. There’ll always be people answering them. Of course, library staffers aren’t the only people who are answering questions. But what’s special about a library? A library is a place, usually a building. In the building there’s a staff. For the staff there’s a theme: the life of the mind. With the theme there’s a process: life-long self-directed learning. Driving the process are the people who gather in the building assisted by the staff in the life of the mind as they go about their life-long self-directed learning. That’s the core service of a library. The primary containers of content may be clay tablets or books or smartphones or brain implants. It doesn’t matter. The building interior may resemble a warehouse or a clubhouse. It doesn’t matter. There may not be a reference section or any section we now have. It doesn’t matter. The uniqueness of a library is that it’s a place where people gather to share the life of the mind. People go to a gym to share the life of the body, to a church to share the life of the spirit, to a library to share the life of the mind. They like to go someplace to experience something along with others doing the same thing. There’ll always be libraries – with staffers who, among other things, answer questions.
Why would anyone pay twice for information? I don’t think the Q&A services are viable. Yeah, they’re hanging on. Many of us already use fb as an informal Q&A when we need advice/recommendations about products, etc. Frankly, with Americans’ buying power decreasing, it’s stupid to pay a Q&A service for information/answers when users/citizens are already paying for information. As students, their tuition “pays” for access to the library, it’s staff, and resources. As a tax-payer at the local level their money supports the public library, it’s staff, and resources.
Top Ten Links Week 22 | Librarian by Day
[…] answering is core service of the lib. It’s not” via @buffyjhamilton @aarontay from Facebook social Q&A service is the harbinger of the death of reference A market now exists for fulfilling information needs. Libraries are one player in that market, but […]
Reference librarians in academic libraries need to acknowledge that question answering (no matter how enjoyable) is no longer a primary responsibility that merits a substantial salary.
From an administrative perspective, any form of reference that involves a faculty librarian passively waiting for questions (sitting at a desk, monitoring an IM or chat service) is extremely expensive!
Many libraries have adopted tiered service models where staff or student workers man the service desks and refer more complicated questions to librarians, giving them (theoretically) more time to focus on things like instruction and outreach.
This isn’t the first time the viability of certain reference services has been called into question: http://www.infotoday.com/searcher/jul04/arret_coffman.shtml
There definitely is a market for filling information needs. I think services that are easy to use and marketed well will reign. Here’s a service from the Univeristy of Pittsburgh that really picked up the ball on student-run/social ready reference: http://www.telefact.org/ They say they get about 15,000 calls a month! And notice that only 2.8% of those questions have to do with academics…
Lisa is absolutely correct the question-answering no longer merits a substantial salary.
Libraries need to move on to something else. Not sure exactly what the ideal “else” is, but talking about the wonders of the reference interview is not going to convince anyone of the value of libraries. Even if there are a few exceptions out there, in most places, reference traffic is down, down, down.
The comment of David W is well-intentioned, but also strangely disconnected from reality. The internet has given rise to vast networks of reviews that have largely supplanted the “impartial” networks of the past. Kirkus, anyone? Why would I ask a random librarian what to read when I could tap into innumerable recommendations based on a worldwide community of readers, some of whom develop extremely specialized guides to their favorite subgenres?
While I don’t think the production and reading of books will stop entirely, to argue that Story, in the formats that the library delivers, will retain its centrality, is again to ignore everything that is happening now with user-generated content production on social networks.
Just look at this week’s NYT Book Review essay on “The Man Who Loved Children”, and its nostalgia for a time when people could unapologetically and unashamedly argue that grownups should spend their time reading fiction that was “important”, something that the essay can no longer bring itself to do. If that’s what an adult writing in NYTBR says, what are the chances of libraries against the tide of teenage twitterers?
I provide IM reference service as part of my job, and frequently when I’m looking for answers for people I find their questions already on the various Q&A sites. Problem is, they’re usually not answered, not answered adequately, or the replies are “Yeah, I want to know that too.” So, if FB offers the service will we see an improvement in the answers given? I’m skeptical. Also, will the FB answer service be warehousing and mining your questions and start putting sidebar ads on your page and your friends’ pages based on what you asked about?