A Reference Redo

Our reference desk is in an odd spot. Rather than describe the situation, I created the following hasty floor plan:

floorplan drawing of the SMCM Library's reference desk and circulation desk

When students enter the library they don’t see an actual person until they are well past the stairs to the second floor. The circulation desk dwarfs the reference desk, and the reference desk is obscured by a giant statue of a naked discus thrower. We’ve cut down on our reference desk hours due to staffing challenges, and historically reference shifts have been lower on the priority list for our librarians (falling behind teaching classes, college service work, and meetings). This has left us all feeling generally dissatisfied about our traditional reference set up. Stats are down (not surprisingly), students tend to go to the circulation desk first, some bypass circ and reference all together and just come straight to our offices for help (which are just around the corner from the reference desk), and reference shifts are inconsistently covered. The librarians have a good rapport with students and faculty, and hold multiple reference appointments (some scheduled, some impromptu) with both groups throughout the academic year, but they tend to happen in our offices rather than at the reference desk.

Instead of continuing on with business as usual, our library director gathered us together to discuss reference services at our library. It was an informal meeting, but I thought her discussion questions did a great job at getting to the core of why we provide reference services, what reference means to each of us, and how we could potentially be doing it differently. Here are the questions that guided our sharing:

  1. What is the purpose of reference services in the library?
  2. What are your frustrations with reference services? With the reference desk?
  3. If consultations with individual librarians are more popular, would an “office hour” or “by appointment” model work?
  4. What are our users’ requirements for research help?
  5. If the reference desk went away today, what would students do? What would faculty do? What would librarians do? 
  6. How can we improve reference? Can we?

The discussion was extremely productive, in large part because of the leading question: What is the purpose of reference? I would imagine that the answer would vary depending on the library and school, as we all serve unique populations. For our library reference service is about education, collaboration, listening, and sharing. There is (and will always be, I think) a transactional aspect to reference; students will always need help printing, finding their way to the stacks, or assistance with the new scanner. But reference presents a unique opportunity for librarians to build meaningful relationships with students. I get to know students much better one-on-one, while listening to their tales of research woe or triumph, than I do in the classroom. Sometimes a reference appointment isn’t even about locating information. I’ve met with students who just need to talk out an idea with someone who isn’t their instructor or research advisor. Reference services are a highly relational activity, but the model of reference we’ve been operating under until this point is a very transactional one.

One model I’ve been intrigued by recently is the notion recreating the reference desk into a  “beta space.” In the In the Library with the Lead Pipe article, Beta Spaces as a Model for Recontextualizing Reference Services in Libraries, Madelynn Dickerson proposes a beta space model for reference services that would replace a traditional reference desk/area with a collaborative research space. According to Dickerson, a “beta space is a prototyping space, but one that focuses more on ideas than technology.” It’s like a research incubator in the heart of the library. In this space  students and faculty could gather to work on research projects together, student work could be shared and displayed, and librarians could collaborate with students and faculty, offering one-on-one or small group research assistance. It’s essentially a learning and sharing lab that sits in a public space. What I love most about Dickerson’s idea is the openness and inclusivity it brings to reference services.  By creating a space that is warm and comfortable we’re setting the stage for collaboration rather than consultations or transactions. We’re saying, “Come in and stay a while.” Here’s a rough sketch of what this might look like:

Example drawing of a beta reference space

An artist and interior designer I am clearly not, but I think this gets the idea across. The space is built for discussion and collaboration. Where does the librarian sit, you might ask? My question would be: Does it matter? I ask that in all sincerity. Do we need to be at a desk with an air of place/authority, or can we float around a larger space instead? I like the idea of being visible, accessible, and sitting in a comfy sofa chair with a cup of coffee and my laptop, ready to dig into a complex research question with a student during an “office hour” or some equivalent to that in this space. I could see myself meeting with a professor’s undergraduate research group in the private collaboration space, going over the intricacies of their literature review strategy. I envision a lunchtime reception showcasing research from an environmental studies class project. I could also see a group of dedicated library peer mentors who could staff this space and provide much needed research help on evenings and weekends when librarians are unavailable.

As we begin the spring semester (tomorrow!) we’re going to study our reference services more closely, review alternative models to “the desk,” and talk to our students and faculty about how they prefer to gain assistance for their research. Of course I’d love to hear what model of reference you’ve adopted at your library in recent years.

4 thoughts on “A Reference Redo

  1. I like this idea of a community reference space very much. My community public library is very good with programming, but reference services are still barricaded behind a large square desk, with the librarian pointed in one direction. Often the librarian is typing away on their computer and not making a lot of eye contact. I believe that librarians need to get out from behind the desk, and be more interactive with patrons. Standing desk areas would put them out into public space.

    What a great idea to take a group to a mini research incubator that can form on the fly. I believe that our libraries need to always present librarians as being accessible, as much as we do our resources. A desk gives the librarian a place to set themselves apart at times, and an office may put people off if there is not enough drop in time and not visible enough.

    One other feature of a research incubator is the ability to teach tech skills on the spot. A big one is working with patrons to get mobile apps up and running as well as teaching internet searching skills; how to find reputable sources, search beyond ads and first pages, find open access materials, etc.

    Just some ideas, which I am advocating for. I am an MLIS graduate student, who has worked in retail for many years, selling products requiring consultation, design, and demonstration.

  2. I love the creativity in rethinking how to help students in a library! I’m teaching reference at UNC’s School of Information and Library Science & will be using this post and the images in a section on the reference setting this week. Thanks, Veronica!

  3. Thank you so much, Stephanie! I’m always interested in how students think of reference services as well.

  4. Elizabeth, I love that you can bring your years in retail to influence conceptions of reference services. A colleague of mine talked to me recently about how people’s expectations aren’t limited to separate contexts. For example, expectations shaped by retail culture will influence what we expect in customer service from any building/organization/service. We see our environment as one continuous whole.

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