Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Future of the Reference Desk

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott Carlson reports on the future of the reference desk. In some libraries, librarians answer questions using e-mail and instant messaging. Other librarians even use Facebook and library blogs as a way of reaching out to students. At the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, one young reference librarian hangs out in the student cafeteria or in a local coffee shops with his laptop and a wireless connection, and reports that "dozens of students" show up.

It is common knowledge that there is less traffic at traditional reference desks than there used to be before the Internet. At Pace, we find that we get fewer questions, but that the questions tend to be more complex and require a higher level of sophistication on the part of our librarians. More and more, the wisdom of hiring librarians who also have law degrees is apparent. We also find that when we work in the stacks (shelfreading or weeding, for instance) students approach us with questions. For some reason, we seem to be more approachable when we are not tethered to an imposing piece of furniture! We also find that some students who would not approach us in person will approach us via email using a generic account we set up. I found it interesting that at Colorado State University, reference librarians have been pulled off the reference desk and replaced with trained clerical workers. If there is a difficult question, students are referred to librarians who work in offices. As I said, we have found at Pace that complex questions are being asked at the Reference Desk, and I would hesitate to replace dual-degree librarians with even well-trained clerical staff.

As for the physical reference desk, some libraries are doing away with that altogether. We have just finished a major library renovation, and made the conscious decision to include a reference desk in the renovated facility. Instead of the traditional reference desk, however, we now have a reference desk that ends in a good-sized round area that will accommodate several chairs. We are now able to work with students in small groups, a nice amenity when students are working together on a collaborative project and need reference help.


Jacqueline Cantwell said...

Thank you for describing reference in a law school. I am interested in reading that front desk reference personnel have been replaced by clerical staff. What was the reason? Were the majority of the reference questions directional or very basic? Was better signage installed? Are the librarians in the back creating user guides? Do the patrons know that the front desk people are not librarians? Are reference questions and answers being evaluated?

It would be nice to think that reference accuracy improves when the librarian is able to spend time on a question and not be pressured by the sighs and tapping feet of waiting patrons.

I cannot imagine doing reference in a public law library without a reference desk. First of all, the reference desk provides a physical and emotional barrier between staff and difficult patrons. Secondly, public reference requires using indexes constantly. Alameda had a great counter where I could spread CEB and Rutter guides when working on a question. I miss it in Brooklyn.

We do different reference in court libraries. Since the public are one time users and the attorneys are under time pressures, neither group wants to read the loose-leaf’s blue “How to Use This Service.” I use to tell students to learn how to use the loose-leafs, but that instruction would not fly in a court library. I walk the harried person over to the shelf, pull open the index to the approximate topic and tell the patron to scan the entries. Then I pull off the most likely volumes for them. I have noticed that the older attorneys are not dismayed by indexes, but the public finds the whole concept very difficult. It is obvious that the K-12 grades have not taught library skills for the past twenty years.

Court libraries get different questions than universities. We rarely get involved questions. I would say that only two questions a week require more than half an hour’s work. We do need to start putting more effort into creating user guides as the courts expand their access to justice initiative. Since my boss got an office for the reference staff, we actually have a place to work now undisturbed by the public!

Betsy McKenzie said...

The post by Marie and Jackie's response are both fascinating! About 15 years ago, there was a movement in university libraries to do away with the reference desk -- an article by then University Librarian at Duke called "Shaking the Tree" generated a multi-type library conference that I attended at Duke. I still have the T-shirt with a cartoon librarian standing on the reference desk with a crazed expression and a TNT device, and the name of the Conference: Rethinking Reference.

One of the ideas I heard there was to be a circuit-riding librarian, moving around the stacks and tables to offer reference assistance. I think it's a cool idea, and more workable in academic libraries that don't serve the public. As Jackie points out, the desk can be a shield if you have a "difficult" patron. I once wandered away from the reference desk with a pro se patron who said he needed a dictionary. When we were in the distant, lonely stacks where the dictionaries were housed, the patron suddenly confided to me that martians were controlling him through radio transmissions to his brain. I never wished so hard for a desk between me and a patron!