This afternoon, I attended a special meeting of the New Jersey Library Association Reference Section addressing the future of QandANJ and virtual library service overall in New Jersey. I had written before about how the service was being cancelled but can say that now that has been given a nine week reprieve. Today, at the Princeton Public Library, sixty librarians from all over the state representing both public and academic libraries as well as the State Library came together to talk about the future of the service.
I’ll be honest and say that I wasn’t really sure what to expect. The emotions have run high in the last couple of weeks as the state conference allowed people to talk face to face about the service. I’ve had people thanking me for writing about the subject and how they didn’t feel like they could say anything on the topic. I’ve also heard secondhand accounts of people who are in favor of the service closing but don’t want to speak out on it either. I find either position discouraging for it doesn’t bring everyone to the table for an open and honest discussion.
With all due deference to my good friend Beth Cackowski who is the project coordinator for QandANJ (and whose job is on the line here), if you put things into perspective this is but one service in the entire state and has an operating budget of ~$350,000 a year. It seems a bit foolish to let this one service define relationships between peers; it should not be a litmus test for professional relationships. There are still plenty of other statewide projects and offerings that the community agrees on continuing for the good of library service.
At the same time, I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to marginalize it either. Virtual reference is important now and will be in the future as internet access and mobile technology continues to expand into the population base. I believe it is a vital and valuable service which suffers from a lack of awareness in the overall population (the same could be said for a lot of library materials, services, and programs as well). It represents a part of a shift in library services models which go to where the individual is whether it is text, chat, web, or otherwise.
In getting back to the meeting, I can give those interested a broad update:
- There is strong support within the NJ library community to continue the service. Even if QandANJ shuts down in September (that the new cutoff date), the next step will be looking to create a new virtual reference service in one way or another. Those kinds of statements made received applause and approval from those in attendance.
- There will be an NJLA taskforce charged with examining all types of solutions, alternatives, and options. I don’t know the details of the timeline for them to report, but from the talk to today it sounds like a very short turnaround. We will not be waiting till next annual conference to see what they turn up.
- There were breakout discussion groups that brainstormed a good number of ideas and possibilities for how to continue the service. Sponsorships, alternative grant funding, donations, letters asking for money, and finding other cost saving means were put on the table. (Personally, I think that the new Atlantic City gaming zone should sponsor it. If they want people to come to AC to gamble, they might as well advertise to the people who are closest.) It’s a matter of visibility and what we can do to increase it. There was even some talk about getting together with other virtual reference services in order to combine negotiating power.
Overall, I felt like it was an excellent time investment for all who attended. After last year’s cuts (both state and local), the NJLA membership seems to have become acutely aware of budget and budget formulations. Perhaps the protests of last year have transformed some people from passive observers to active participants with interests in how statewide services impact the local level. Or, with all the local cuts, the reliance on the State Library has grown to attempt to fill in some of the gaps and that includes services like QandANJ. In any event, it looks like the membership is involved in anything that changes services at their library, no matter what is it or where it originates from.
In the end, I have cautious optimism. As it was observed at the very end of the session, it is not what happens now but what happens in six months. With this kind of showing of support, I have no doubts that virtual reference will live on in New Jersey. It’s just a question of what it will look like.
And for those who want a say in this unfolds, now is the time to show up.
I’ve started a Facebook group called “Friends of QandA NJ” for people to join if they want to continue the conversation on a casual basis. It’s an open group so anyone can join. Feel free to add to the conversation, ask questions, and have your say.