Reflecting on Reference Services

A colleague recently invited me to speak in an LIS graduate class she teaches on information services. I was delighted to have the chance to talk with her students; it was even more of a treat since I attended the same graduate program for my MLIS, and the information services course was the very first course I took in my program (mumble-mumble) years ago.

The students in the course are varied in their career goals, and not all are aiming for academic librarianship or public services work. So while I did speak about how my coworkers at City Tech and I think about reference work in the library at our large, public, technical and professional degree granting college in New York City, I also tried to contextualize reference services not just within the organization of the library, but also within the college, university, and city.

As I’m sure is not unusual for colleges like City Tech, reference for us is not just about answering questions about staplers and printers, or helping students navigate databases and the catalog to find sources for their research projects. Reference at City Tech also involves questions about the college and university. The library is the only place on campus that is open for many hours in the evenings and weekends (and we don’t even have overnight hours). We’re also one of the few spots on campus with a person sitting at a desk that’s highly visible (our reference desk is just inside the library entrance), and that features a sign that directs folks to ask for help (ours reads “Ask a Librarian”). At our reference desk we get all the questions: about technology, logging into wifi, the learning management system, registering for classes, filling out financial aid forms, etc.

So lots of what we do at the reference desk at my college looks like answering questions though also sending students to other places on campus. And that has led to discussion among our library faculty; do we still need a traditional reference desk when traditional reference questions are not always the kinds of questions we get?

Lots of academic libraries have shifted to reference by appointment only, or personal librarians, or other models, but at this point we don’t feel that those models will best serve our students at City Tech. Most of our students have come straight from the NYC public high schools, where they may not have had a school librarian. Many are in low-income households, or are in the first generation of their families to attend college. Some have library anxiety — City Tech’s library is only two floors in the middle of a building and can seem so small and unassuming to me, but I have heard students say that they found it to be big and confusing when they first got to the college. Having a staffed reference desk can help the library feel like a welcoming place for students, especially new students.

We schedule a library faculty member at the reference desk during all hours that the library is open while classes are in session, and most hours during semester breaks. That said, we have made some changes over the past couple of years. Moving a technical support staff member to a slightly different location allowed us to reduce staffing by library faculty at the reference desk from two librarians to one. This arrangement definitely serves students better, and relieves librarians of having to spend lots of time reviewing details of our printing system with students (as I alluded to in a post last year). This change has also proved helpful in accommodating some expected and unexpected staffing shortages this semester.

However, there is still some tension in managing information services in relation to everything else that my colleagues and I want librarians and the library to do with our campus community. I’m not quite sure how things will change for us in the future — while we are interested in doing more course-integrated instruction and other information services work with City Tech students, faculty, and staff, it’s unclear whether we’ll need to shift reference, too.

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