Reference work can be done whether or not there’s a library at hand … the Internet has made this entirely too evident to those who wonder what it is, exactly, that reference librarians do.
In my view, reference needs to be done at two levels. The first is “basic” and requires an expanded sense of cultural literacy. The second is “advanced” and calls for a subject specialist (or at least someone who has a recognized expertise in some area, perhaps due to some personal interest).
An expanded cultural literacy, in our age, is not an easy thing to acquire. Those who have a college degree in English Literature, for instance, need to understand the basic issues of science and technology. Those who have degrees in the hard sciences need art, literature, and the “soft sciences” such as sociology. Reference librarians need to bridge the “Two Cultures.”
It’s a matter of filling the holes in one’s basic education. There are a lot of “basic texts” that could be used for this purpose, with many of them now finding their way to the Internet.
A “master’s level” in basic reference can be created by 1) defining and providing what needs to be taught – and to whom – and by 2) providing education/training in the use of various search tools. Some, now a relative few, would be traditional print sources (especially if the student in interested in working at the university level) but most would involve the use of electronic tools including search engines, open and subscription databases, etc.
One might note that this requires a cross-disciplinary master’s – something of an anathema in academia – and the very thing that Dewey could not get Columbia to allow in his first attempt at providing graduate-level training for librarians.
Though, of course, he was concerned with cataloging.