Benefits of a national reference service for all Americans

booksandmouseNearly all libraries offer a reference service. Most but not all still have a physical reference desk or counter, where people who visit the library can walk up and ask questions about anything, from homework help to job seeking. Many libraries also offer telephone, email, chat, and SMS texting reference services.  Even snail-mail reference questions continue to trickle in. Some innovative libraries even offer reference service in three-dimensional virtual worlds, such as Second Life. Long ago libraries discovered that a multi-faceted approach works best. Give users as many options and “channels” for asking their questions and receiving assistance in finding and using information.

Given all of these great local, regional, and state-based reference services, why should a national library reference service even be discussed, let alone planned and implemented? How would a national reference service be an improvement?  How would such a service benefit all Americans? Let me count the ways:

  1. 24/7 Service:  Any national reference service worthy of the name would always be open. Most reference services at local libraries are staffed only when the library is open – sometimes less.
  2. Anywhere Service: This has several meanings and ramifications. First, all Americans would have access to a national reference service. Currently there are many areas of the country that are not served by any local library. Some of these areas are sparsely populated or poor, but others are affluent. Anywhere service also means that all Americans should be able to reach the service from anywhere. Anyone should be able to use their personal portable device of choice (mobile phone, tablet computer, ereader, etc.) to receive reference service.
  3. Faster Responses:  Because a national reference service should be able to bring more resources (people, expertise, IT infrastructure, etc.) to bear, the average response time from a national reference service should be shorter than that of most local reference services. Such a claim depends on how the national service is conceived, designed, implemented, and managed, of course, but, if a national service didn’t strive for faster and better responses than what is already available, it’s viability and sustainability are doubtful.
  4. Better Responses: This one is tricky, because local reference services provide good service. And for local information and current conditions, local reference services will continue to excel, although it’s my observation that the universe of local information that is truly local (that is, not discoverable from afar) is shrinking rapidly. Again, it depends on how the national service is conceived and built, but the ability to tap into a larger pool of service providers and experts in various topical areas should be a boon. Expertise is out there in many amazing places and individuals, including library users themselves who have cultivated topical expertise. I call this the rustication of expertise, which is one of the long-term benefits of not only a national reference service but also a national digital public library. 
  5. Better Discoverability: Services cannot be used unless people know about them or can find them quickly.  Let’s face it:  Marketing services is not the strong suit of many local libraries.  A national library reference service would be able to develop a “brand” and awareness campaign that should make nearly all Americans at least vaguely aware that such a service exists.
  6. Better Accessibility: Making any kind of service or networked information system truly accessible to all is a complex challenge. Again, a service at the national level may be able to provide better accessibility than most local services, even if they do that by learning from the local services that excel in terms of accessibility, and then going national with these best practices. 

Any national service has to deal with major challenges and concerns from citizens. (Mmmmmm, for some reason, the idea of a national healthcare system came to mind.) One major concern I can imagine for a national library reference service is patron confidentiality. Would the feds be keeping track of users of the service, and what they are asking about? Personally, I’m not too worried about this threat. As long as librarians are involved in all facets of a national library reference service, from top management to the actual service providers, these reference encounters will be confidential, because librarians are passionate about maintaining user confidentiality.

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