So What If We Do Pander To Students

Back on March 9 I participated in a debate about the future of the reference desk. This was part of an annual Reference Symposium sponsored by the Columbia University Libraries. The debate resolution was “be it resolved that research libraries will no longer have reference desks by 2012.” I argued for the affirmative. Among the trends I cited in favor of the resolution were a more mobile society, a user population that wants to get service when and where they want it (as opposed to having to come to a fixed point in the library to get it), and the general decline in traditional reference questions. Arguing that the power of new mobile technologies to deliver information when and where it’s needed, along with the inefficiencies of the current reference desk model for both librarians and library users, I thought I made a compelling case for eliminating the reference desk – not the service – just the physical entity. A vote before and after the debate indicated that attendees were not moved by my arguments. The majority was clearly opposed to the resolution.

But one particular point I made drew an interesting response. During one of my opportunities to speak I indicated that we needed to get out from behind reference desks in order to connect with users on their turf. I said this was especially important for millennial generation students because we couldn’t expect them to come to the library to wait for an authority figure behind a desk to provide answers. An attendee, during the questioning period, asked if that point was just another way of saying that we should pander to students who wanted it their way. This individual claimed that students come to college to learn how to deal with the real world, and that by bending over backwards to accommodate students who expect to get it their way wherever and whenever they want it we were actually doing them a disservice.

I understand how that individual feels because I’ve made similar points previously about our interactions with millennial students. The common thinking seems to be that we now have to change everything because these students learn and behave differently, and our traditional methods will be ineffective. So it’s not unreasonable to ask why we should change rather than expect students to change to fit our traditional academic library culture. I responded that it was perhaps best not to think of it as pandering, but rather being student focused and shifting our ways of doing business to meet the needs of our students. To that I added that reaching out to students in their places, whether it be classrooms, dorms, cafeterias, or academic departments, made sense in today’s mobile society – that we need to be where students are to increase our opportunities for productive interaction (I would venture to say that extends to online social networks in situations where interaction with specific students was a pre-existing condition – and I know there’s lots of disagreement with that position).

So while I’m generally not in favor of pandering or kowtowing to students just to get them to acknowledge we exist, I do think it makes good sense to re-engineer reference services so that we are providing it to the user community on their turf. You can avoid doing so, if you think this is pandering, at risk of your own obsolescence.

More on the reference debate on Monday.

11 thoughts on “So What If We Do Pander To Students

  1. I’d ask what ‘busines’ we are in – teaching students to do better research and find good information or teaching them to come to a desk to ask questions? I see the former as having a bright future and the later as being eclipsed by other more accessible approaches.

    I’ll have to say that at every library I have worked at, *part* of the reason people didn’t want to come to the desk is that they have search results on the screen and that is what they need help with and/or if they walk away from the computer they will have to wait in line for another one.

    For what it is worth, I don’t think the “desk” will be eliminated but what happens at that desk will be and has been quite transformed and additional ‘channels’ will be added that are in addition to not instead of the desk….

  2. I agree in theory with the idea that “reaching out to students in their places” makes sense, but in the limited experiments we have done with that at the college where I work, the results haven’t been spectacular.

    One of the virtues of interacting with students in the library is that when they are in the library, they are ready to work. That’s not the case in the dorms, the student center, etc. Also, trying to physically reach them in those spaces tends to spread the librarians pretty thin.

    So I’m interested in hearing some specific success stories.

  3. I would agree that the traditional reference desk is likely to disappear in many places (or to become simply one facet of a much broader array of service models) owing to the reasons you note, but also some others that have nothing to do with “pandering” and everything to do with making more creative and effective use of librarians and library staff.

    For all the reasons you note, as well as others that have been noted in the literature, the foot traffic at traditional reference desks has been going down for years. At the same time, instruction statistics have been going up, and service models that focus on outreach (to faculty, staff, and students, in curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular programs) have emerged and been refined.

    Experience suggests that these models have great promise for more fully integrating librarians and information expertise into the lives of our users and the missions of our campuses. Likewise, the sad truth is that few of us have the luxury of enough professional staff to maintain traditional service models in traditional ways while also dedicating resources to emergent models and service innovations. Thus, it makes sense that many libraries have explored both new service desk models, as well as new models for getting librarians out from “behind the desk” and “into the flow” of the user experience.

    Are we “pandering” to faculty when we provide research consultations off the desk, teach in their classrooms, work with their curriculum committees to identify student learning outcomes, or build information systems that allow us to bring library resources, services, and expertise into Web portals, online learning environments, or disciplinary discussion lists? Should they “come to the desk” for all these valuable, professional services?

    This is not “bending over backwards”; this is making sure that our commitment to professional service in support of user needs is attuned to broader changes in the information and academic environments.

    I think Lisa is right that there is likely to be a “desk” for the foreseeable future, but the way it is staffed, the activities that occur there, and the way those activities complement a broader array of professional activities are all up for grabs.

  4. I think it’s going to take more than five years for the users to really want us in their spaces, physical or virtual. (There are exceptions, but they are the exception rather than the rule, so far.) And it’ll probably take more than five years for them to entirely stop wanting us in our physical spaces.

    We don’t just serve the millennial generation, and college presidents, alumni, faculty, and staff won’t all die off or stop using the library in the next five years. Some of those categories of folks (including the millennial generation) will adopt and have adopted mobile technology and want to text us, but some of them will still be quite upset ten years from now if they walk into the library and there’s no one physically there to work with them.

    We usually only get to add more services – we almost never get to drop one.

  5. Regarding the resolution “be it resolved that research libraries will no longer have reference desks by 2012.” I agree with the sentiment, although the timeline may be too aggressive. The reference desk as we know it has never been effective in reaching more than a small minority of users, and it is becoming steadily less relevant in an age of distributed user populations and digital resources.

    It’s interesting to note that some think students are unlikely to approach the reference desk because they associate it with an “authority figure.” In my experience, students often view the reference desk and the person behind it not so much as authority, but instead as clerical. Many library users do not approach reference desks because they have no confidence that the person behind the desk will be sufficiently knowledgable and credentialed to help them.

    Virtual reference systems improve access to reference at numerous levels. While I have posted before about the silliness of librarians trying to use Facebook, MySpace, etc. , I do not think it is “pandering” to deliver reference services digitally in a manner that is convenient for the user and cost-effective for the library.

  6. Two main points:
    1) I think we should look beyond the desk to provide reference

    2) I hope to never, ever hear again about how “millennials” are so different.

    The “nontraditional” Gen X and Baby Boomer aged students (and faculty!) seem to appreciate our coming to them instead of forcing them trudge to the desk. I think it has nothing whatsoever to do with the generation and everything to do with customer service. Like Lisa said, people want to show us their computer screens. The world has changed and it’s not generation specific.

    And I bet that “pandering” comment was from someone who is just as sick of hearing about generations and libraries as I am.

  7. I suppose that generational differences matter in the sense that younger people have grown up with a broader range of technologies. However, I agree with Candice’s idea that the use of such technologies transcends generations. I have seen people older than myself who practically seem glued to their portable devices, while I feel content to be disconnected for extended periods of time. In the end, it depends on one’s individual needs, real and preceived.

    I have yet to do a follow-up on this, but I did a posting a few months ago that contains the complete text of a comment left on Meredith Farkas’ blog by a Millennial. I know it’s anecdotal, but it just underscores the complexity of user needs and perceptions of libraries, and it demonstrates further that we might take a bit too much stock in generational differences.

  8. Dear Steven,

    In 1994, when I did one of my first presentations on serving Generation X students, I got a simliar reaction as you received when I suggested meeting students on their “turf” and handing students answers rather than turning EVERY query into an instruction session. I also advocated library drive-up windows! A number of librarians were clearly annoyed and asked WHY we should change–that students should adapt to our culture. Well, the whole higher education culture is changing…and not to meet the needs of one generation, but to meet the needs and wants of many generations. Traditional colleges and universities used to be the only game in town for getting a degree, just like libraries used to be the only source for getting information. This is not the case anymore. We have “competitors” eager to recruit our “customers.” Change, adaptation, and evolution are better than the alternative–extinction.

  9. These are all good points Catherine – we have to be agile and change as needed to adapt to meet out users’ expectations. I do advocate that a change made at your library does not necessarily make sense at my library. We should each carefully and thoughtfully assess which changes make the best sense for our culture and environment. Some degree of change to accommodate students will be needed, and it may be a question of to what degree works best.

    Thanks to everyone for your comments to this post – there are a lot of great thoughts here.

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