If you want to get into a contentious discussion with a reference librarian, suggest that you think it’s time to get rid of the reference desk. In my last post I mentioned the debate about the reference desk at Columbia University in which I participated. I should mention that my fellow debater was Sarah Watstein, AUL for Research and Instructional Services at UCLA and a co-editor of RSR/Reference Services Review. Sarah took on the role of the negative debater, and made some good arguments for why we need to maintain the reference desk. So what were some of the debate points, both pro and con?
Here are some of the key points I made in affirmation of the resolution that we should eliminate the desk by 2012:
- A reference deskless model that can work owing to mobile technology; several libraries have already done away with the traditional desk or are no longer putting subject specialists at desks (UC Merced, Colorado State U)
- Having students or paraprofessionals at desks may mean an occasional missed opportunity for a teachable moment or even a mishandled question; but are librarians perfect â€“ and think about how many students already go to the circulation desk or never come in at all; look not at what we have to lose but what we have to gain by getting out from behind the desk
- Advanced technology like the Vocera device can allow librarians to be connected with users at any point in the building; why sit behind desk â€œjust-in-caseâ€ when we could be putting our professional skills to better use elsewhere; move to a “pre-emptive” just-in-time model of reference service
- Weâ€™re not getting real reference questions anymore; we are getting lots of printer and computer questions (you call that reference?); we are getting more questions that require time consuming consultations and those should be managed at locations other than reference desks
- The reference desk is just a symbol for reference service; getting rid of the desk does not mean getting rid of the service
- Leveraging new technologies to eliminate reference desks will not eliminate the human touch; it will only mean it migrates to other service points such as classrooms, consultation rooms, residence halls, academic departments and all those other places on campus where we can personally connect with our user community
Here are some of the key points Sarah made in opposing the resolution:
- The reference desk is a powerful symbol and essential to the mission and purpose of academic reference service, but also to the culture of our academic libraries in general; an academic library without a reference desk is unthinkable
- In our increasingly impersonal world, the value of personal service has never been higher. Think â€œautomated attendants.â€ Itâ€™s critical to maintain the human touch in delivering reference service; if we do it all by mobile phone, video and computers (txt, IM, chat, email, etc.), we will lose the ability to connect with our users
- Transactions may be down but academic library reference desks are still incredibly busy; our reference desks are symbols of our service in action.
- Search and discovery in our complex information environs is not getting any easier. Think formats and interfaces. Think bells and whistles. Today more than ever users need an intermediary; reference librarians can perform more efficient, more precise and more knowledgeable searches
- A teachable moment in person is not equal to a teachable moment online; if we remove the desk we remove vast opportunities for teachable moments to happen; information literacy can help but itâ€™s not producing nearly the level of self-capable student researcher we desire
- What about Brodart? Gaylord? Thos. Moser? The library furniture business is alive and well. Product options abound! Todayâ€™s desks are designed to serve not just a purpose, but also our audience. They are more durable, have greater aesthetic appeal, are more customizable, and truly complement the versatile learning environments that increasingly define our academic libraries. Our trusted sources for library furniture will see us well into the 21st century.
How personally committed are Sarah and I to these views? Well, letâ€™s just say that a good debate should really polarize the issues so that we can clearly express the pros and cons and achieve a better understanding of what we have to gain and lose by making significant changes in our service delivery models. Will research libraries still have reference desks by 2012? We don’t think desks will become extinct over the next five years, but we do believe the profession will be experimenting with multiple reference models some of which will not require a traditional desk. Methods and modes of providing reference service will continue to change – - and must, if we are to stay relevant to our users.
Note to readers: This post was co-authored with my debate partner, Sarah Watstein.