“Reference” important, “desk” maybe (or maybe not)

April 17, 2007

Whenever I see a story in The Chronicle related to libraries or information, some Pavlovian principle compels me to read it. Not that I start drooling, but there’s some obligation to at least give it a glance. A recent article by Scott Carlson seems more directly relevant to my job than most, asking the question Are Reference Desks Dying Out?. It made me think about the time I spend on the reference desk, the kinds of questions I get, and how I feel about the concept of the reference desk.

Typically, I work somewhere between 10-14 hours per week on the reference desk at my library. During intersessions, I have similar reference desk hours. However, all librarians place a sign at the desk referring students to their offices since we expect lower traffic. Although we work on various library-related projects while on the reference desk during autumn, spring, and summer semesters, being in our offices gives us an opportunity to give them greater care and attention.

At the library where I work, we have a combined circulation and reference desk. This began a year or so after I started there. In this scenario, the reference staff know basic circulation skills, while most of the circulation staff know basic reference skills. We have also trained a student worker to work some reference hours, which gives full-time reference staff a few extra hours to devote to other library-related obligations.

Since reference staff work at a combined circulation and reference desk, we end up dealing with issues similar to those mentioned towards the end of the article: unjamming staplers, directing people to the three-hole punch, filling printers and copiers with reams of paper, and (my favorite) figuring out where the aforementioned pieces of paper have jammed multiple times in the aforementioned devices. With access points (such as paper trays) under lock-and-key, copiers pose the greater challenge. As I said before, we also perform basic circulation duties, where we deal with print materials and (another personal favorite) laptops that patrons want to borrow.

Thinking about my reference desk experiences holistically, the majority of “inquiries” I deal with relate to these functional matters. I place inquiries in quotes not out of snobbery, but simply because they would not fall under the purview of traditional reference questions. They also would not count as reference statistics, which we track in an Excel sheet on the reference desk computer.

My library’s reference statistics sheet has a row at the top for type of question and a column on the side for one hour intervals. This allows us to keep track of the number of questions received each hour, the types of questions asked, and daily grand totals of each. Most of the categories are fairly straightforward, including Directional, Guest Accounts (for guest users), MS Office (rarely used), Printing, and Copier/Computer. Two other categories remain ambiguous: Desk/In Person and Other. Obviously, I count in-depth reference questions under that category. However, I get more inquiries about finding something in the catalog. They seem like legitimate reference questions, but I end up counting such questions as “Other” because such inquiries don’t require the same amount of attention as a more in-depth question. (Personally, I like the idea of tracking different levels of reference questions.)

Considering the relatively low number of reference questions I get at the desk, it seems appropriate to return to the issues addressed in the Chronicle article. Via ACRLog, I am already familiar with Steven Bell’s proposal to eliminate reference desks by the year 2012. Although novices might think that this “five-year plan” has the air of a forced revolution that doesn’t take into account the needs of individual libraries, I think that it draws attention to a topic that will require serious soul-searching on the part of anyone involved with reference services.

All libraries need at least one service point for various kinds of referrals or assistance with mechanical mundanities, even if professional librarians don’t staff them. With decent training from professional librarians (and IT staff), paraprofessionals and student workers can easily handle most questions and concerns. Of course, professionals can step in occasionally to help during peak times. Otherwise, they would be free to work on library-related projects, professional development, and even appointments to help users with in-depth reference questions. They could also keep up with the myriad changes affecting the field. This may consist of reading voraciously on a variety of topics tangentially related to librarianship and “information.” One could consider the latter a wild card, and a boon to those with a broad range of interests… which probably describes a good number of librarians, anyway. Professionals would have the time to contemplate the ramifications of what they read, and maybe even to actually “play” with new technologies that could help libraries remain a vital part of society.

Of course, the previous paragraph describes a utopian situation, likely informed by what I have gleaned from reading and listening to various resources, as well as thoughts based my own experiences working in a large academic library. Unfortunately, not everyone can do this, mainly due to the usual constraints of time and/or money. Lack of vision may be another factor, but I cannot in good conscience entirely blame librarians for that. Friendly persuasion from visionaries seems like the best place to start in gaining support from a range of skeptics, from librarians who have concerns about technology to skeptical holders of purse strings. Of course, various manifestations of Web 2.0 require no direct financial support, which is a good start. On the other hand, no amount of money will persuade politicians hyping concerns about social networks, YouTube, and other such things that will “lead youth astray.” (Of course, those same politicians want to deny money to libraries allowing access to those tools, likely intensifying the vicious cycle of skepticism, adversity to change, and general fear of obsolescence by library staff.)

Getting back to the use of paraprofessionals and student workers at service desks… I certainly do not think that reference librarians should be detached from reference service. However, with the training and grand visions promulgated in LIS school, we should (ideally) focus on the “big questions” that stump frontline staff. I know that reference purists may view all questions as equal, but this model seems like the best way to put the skills learned in library school to good use. And, once again, fewer hours at the reference desk means more time to devote to improving “information” retrieval, and even giving enhanced reference service to patrons with in-depth questions… if that’s what we really want to do.

In the end, however, I think we all just need to be honest with ourselves. Especially with relatively few staff, a library with a busy reference desk can’t just get rid of it because of some “visionary” proclamation. Similarly, a library with a slow reference desk can’t hold on to one for the sake of tradition, especially if time and money can allow librarians to engage in more visionary work. Ultimately, it’s up to individual libraries to decide whether “traditional” reference desk duties seem more useful for their communities, or (time and money permitting) if librarians should do more than clearing various mechanical jams and pointing patrons to the bathroom. Personally, I think we all should be willing and able to do either one, depending on the needs of the library where we happen to work at any given time. Some institutional honesty and a willingness to critically examine the nature of reference desk transactions seems like a good place to start.


One Response to ““Reference” important, “desk” maybe (or maybe not)”

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