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Reference lives on, no question

20,000 librarians will gather in Chicago this week, and many of them work in the go-to place for homework questions, trivia and computer help. But the desk of old has evolved with the times.

Christopher Borrelli

June 22, 2013

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When I was a child, for as long as I could remember, my family's Encyclopedia Britannica set was missing two volumes — the two volumes that always seemed to pertain to my homework assignments. And so within an hour or so of getting home, I would sit at the kitchen table and call my neighborhood library and ask for the information desk. The operator would correct me: "You mean 'reference desk?'" And I would mumble that I did, then there would be a pause, a ring-ring-ring, a click, followed by a stern, erudite voice: "Reference ..."

Sometimes I hung up — the voice promised only intimidation, condescension.

But usually I would ask for whatever random fact I needed — the age of the deepest point of the ocean, the birthplace of the inventor of the sextant, the primary crop of South Dakota. The reference librarian, a patient woman of indeterminate age, would put down the phone with a hard plastic knock. I would wait about five minutes, then she would return to the phone and ask if I was ready and read what she found. Then I would hang up, come to an inevitable impasse in my homework and call back — again and again, every afternoon.

The American Library Association's big annual conference begins this week at McCormick Place. According to the association (which is based in Chicago, though infrequently hosts its conventions here), more than 20,000 librarians will descend on the city for six days, from Thursday to July 2. If you are shocked to learn there are 20,000 librarians left in the Age of Google, then you'll be floored to know that a sizable portion will likely be reference librarians — those very same souls who once sat behind elevated desks, explained how to load microfilm and fielded calls from children in need of the gross national product of Spain.

Yes, the neighborhood reference desk lives.

Nay, thrives.

But not how you remember it.

"Don't feel bad for asking about us," said Toby Greenwalt, a reference librarian at the Skokie Public Library. "The reference desk job has become more of a consulting job now" — in fact, his title is virtual services coordinator — "but we are here. Right after school gets out for the day, we still get 'What is the capital of ...' questions. And before dinner, we still get people who need phone numbers. But some people can't believe we exist: 'What do you do?' 'Reference librarian.' 'Oh, people still go to libraries to ask things?' You get that."

Last month alone, the reference desk at the Skokie Public Library received 4,500 questions.

And yet, you have to wonder: What could I ask a reference librarian that my cellphone doesn't already know?

So last week I embedded myself for several hours on a fairly typical small town reference desk, the reference desk at the Mount Prospect Public Library, which in 2011 received more than 200,000 questions. If you're one of the people who called or walked up to this desk with an inquiry, there's a good chance you spoke with Dale Heath, the head of research services at Mount Prospect Public Library.

Heath is 42, studied library science at the University of Iowa and has the perky posture and helpful eyes I once hoped for in a librarian. The reference desk is on the second floor and sits in the center of the action; it's long and shaped in a half circle, with a white, glowing translucent facade. The walls around it have soft colors and twee Alexander Calder-esque mobiles that dangle from the ceiling, twirling in the air conditioning.

Heath started here 12 years ago, she said, when the library still had limited Internet access, "when the job was still pretty traditional." She looked around at the work cubicles, each occupied by a patron hovering over a computer. As we waited for a question, she told me about the typical questions she gets now: There are still the tweens who need homework help (though fewer than a couple of generations ago). There are the elderly patrons who aren't comfortable with computers and the families who don't own computers. A man calls regularly for the latest inflation data; a women calls to find out more about the national health care law.

"Another woman just called to ask if it was true that the Obama administration was pushing legislation to strip soldiers of religious freedoms — we get a lot of questions from people who listen to talk radio all day."

Patti Smolin, her reference partner, returned from a search. She carried photocopies of a doghouse in the middle of a flooded field, a picture that ran in the Daily Herald in 1971. A patron wanted a good reproduction.

"We Google," Smolin said. "We use Wikipedia. But we remind people, those are only starting points."

The goal of reference desks, Heath said, has become "informational literacy, seeing reference in a broader sense, pointing people toward reputable sources. We often get patrons who've exhausted the Internet."

Or been exhausted by it.

A cheerful, potbellied man in a gray polo shirt approached the desk, saying in a half whisper: "I'm not good with social media, but I know I have to be good at it. I get the concept. But I don't understand how it works? This woman unfriended me on the Facebook; she took offense at something I wrote and unfriended me."

"'Unfriend' is such a bad word," Heath said, sympathetically.

"But people take it seriously!" the man said.

She walked with him to his cubicle and helped him with the Facebook.

Ironically, a fair chunk of a reference librarian's job has become helping people search for information. Said Andrew Medlar, the Chicago Public Library's assistant commissioner for collections, every Halloween they get patrons who want to know if Resurrection Mary is real, every science-fair season "every other reference question from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. could be about capillary action and turning a carnation different colors." But more straightforward queries — "Who was the Blackhawks captain in 1978?" — have been replaced with harder questions: Can you help me find a job? Write a resume? Develop a small business?

Said Maureen Sullivan, president of the American Library Association, "the job has become about self-directed learning, working within a community — I actually think 'reference librarian' will go away. Nobody knows what it means now."

Consider the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, just down the road from the Mount Prospect library.

It just completed a $2.8 million renovation, including a markedly different approach to reference desks. What you find on the main floor now is a stylish white tower inscribed with the word "Info." Standing at this tower — standing, all day — are librarians waiting for questions, poised at computers. Patrons stand alongside librarians and watch the search, the point being, said Nancy Kim Phillips, the library's info services manager, to break from the cultural image of a reference librarian perched above a patron, eyebrows arched.

As for callers? There's a call-center reference desk, tucked away in a windowless room, with librarians on headsets.

Ask librarians if changes like this have been painless, and you hear a familiar refrain, about old-school reference librarians who grew disgusted. On the other hand, said Mary Pat Fallon, incoming director of the doctoral program at the graduate school of library and information science at Chicago's Dominican University, "When I was attending Dominican (less than a decade ago), people in the reference program were mostly middle-aged women looking for something to do after their kids were raised. Everything was heavily print based. And now we get retired policemen, kids with piercings — more gender balance, more acceptance of how the job looks now."

Indeed, as startling as it is to hear Skokie's Greenwalt, who is 33, tell me that "libraries have never been about books. Books just happened to be the medium used," it's not that different from what Mary Williams, the longtime manager of Chicago Public Library's Avalon Park branch (and a reference librarian for 32 years), said:

"No matter what the reference tools of this job become, you cannot replace the human element in this."

Almost every reference librarian I spoke with who had been a librarian before and after the rise of digital culture told me their jobs had become exponentially more sociable and hectic. But back in Mount Prospect — albeit on a Monday morning, after the school year — there were moments the reference desk was so slow, that human element was very much in evidence, if not in the way Williams meant. When it got quiet, Heath and Smolin reassured me it was not like this all the time, then sat silently side by side for stretches, looking up expectantly as a patron approached the desk and continued past, headed for the free computers.

Heath got up and walked around.

She asked the handful of people browsing the actual bookshelves if they needed help. None did. She went back to the desk. Someone asked for help with the fax machine; a man in a straw hat asked about wireless access. As often as Heath and Smolin heard these questions — as often as they were asked about the location of the bathrooms — they were unfailingly warm and efficient. A woman asked for a DVD of "Mad Men," and though it didn't sound much like reference, Heath sprung from her seat and hunted down the disc.

When she returned, I asked: When was the last time someone had a question that required her to find a physical book in the library's stacks. She thought for a long moment, then said, "Last week! Last week someone called and wanted — no, wait, that's different. Gosh, I remember doing it, but can't remember ..."

The Facebook guy was back.

Heath smiled.

"I got to tell ya," he said, "but I am Facebook dumb! I am not getting this." So Heath stood and left the reference desk and sat beside the man for a few more minutes, until he knew how to work the computer.

cborrelli@tribune.com