Debating The Future Of The Reference Desk

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 – 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 “just-in-case” when we could be putting our professional skills to better use elsewhere; move to a “pre-emptive” just-in-time model of reference service
– We’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 “automated attendants.” It’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 it’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! Today’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, let’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.

22 thoughts on “Debating The Future Of The Reference Desk”

  1. I think a lot depends on the local culture. I’m working on a Monday night in a very busy library, doing lots of face-to-face reference. I also have our chat service open (we have accounts aggregated from four services, with one of them an applet right on the library’s front page) and a phone and I’m getting way more foot traffic. But the students on this campus like to work in the library and they like face-to-face. I’m not sure they feel chat is “automated” or faceless (we keep fooling with our avatars) but they’re here and so am I so…

    Be it resolved we should do what works, keep trying things out until we find the right combination, and keep reevaluating that combination as times and technologies and – more importantly – cultures change.

  2. Steven is wrong on the argument of “but are librarians perfect?” Just because librarians are not perfect does not mean student workers can do the same as librarians.

    How about “Are professors perfect?” and replace them with TAs? Or, “Are doctors perfect?” and replace them with nurses?

  3. I think it’s interesting that people sometimes think in either/or mode. This was a topic of discussion at a panel on electronic resources and reference that I attended, and much of the comments were divided. Don’t we do both? Circulate in the library where we are needed and appear at the reference desk, a fixed point where students can find us?
    I like the idea of technology that will let you know where you are needed, but I don’t think it will completely replace having a place where ‘everybody knows your name’ … or at least what you do.

    Also, many smaller libraries do not offer many long blocks of time where a librarian can stay in an office and work on projects. We need a place where we can work and keep an eye on patrons.

  4. Hi. And please don’t foget convenience for the customer; having a desk means that library customers always know where to go to find somebody to help – who wants to roam the library in search of a librarian???

  5. Librarians have long been proponents of choice. We offer book answers (think of the “…for Dummies” series), computer access to web page answers and blog help, avatars to connect with, magazines and pamphlets with help columns, phone numbers to call, DVDs and videos to watch, even hands-on classes and events for how-to-do…

    Why would we take away one help choice? Every help format has advantages and connects with a different style of patron.

    The face-to-face offers an instant chance to read the body language and facial expressions and to revise the questions you are asking to get straight to the patron’s need.

  6. Many of our librarians bring their wireless laptops to the reference desk. This allows us to get other work done during slow times at the desk. In the pre-wireless laptop days, I did think it was something of a waste of time to sit there waiting for a “good” question. Now, I’m not so concerned. I get the same work done that I would be doing in my office.

    Also, with the technology/printer questions, even though I don’t like them and I prefer having student help to answer those questions, every interaction is an opportunity to show people how helpful, friendly, and open librarians can be, so that they’ll be comfortable coming up with more complex questions later.

  7. Pingback: Re: Reference
  8. I would like to see some discussion about placing reference services outside the library, perhaps in the student union. How about library kiosks on campus? Part of the changes in libraries involves moving (or linking) electronic resources to where they live on the net, but we could also look at how to move parts of the library to where they physically congregate on campus. Is any library doing this?

  9. Steve — you state ” We’re not getting real reference questions anymore; we are getting lots of printer and computer questions (you call that reference?); ”
    This is simply not true, at least not in my experience or that of my colleagues. We get many research-based questions. What is your source of information for making this assertion?

  10. I guess we could discuss what’s a reference question (what’s the population of france; what was the name of Jacques Cousteau’s ship, etc – quick ref, facts, stats) versus what you call a “research-based question”. I base my assertion on talking to a number of librarians as I prepared for the debate. I also base this on conversations that occured at a reference desk discussion at midwinter. Lots of folks are saying traditional reference questions have dropped. And no matter how many you get – it’s probably less than the year before or five years ago. That’s according to the ARL statistics as well as andecdotal evidence from nearly every librarian I talk with.

  11. well to me it’s a well know fact that reference in America is important and helpful to the patrons. But here in the Philippines is quite different most of our patrons here usually stay away from our librarians and even reference librarians. even they looked like stupid and fool.

  12. The reference desk is UNDENIABLY a powerful symbol and essential to the mission and purpose of academic reference service. I don’t have any opposition with that assertion given by Ms. Sarah. BUT, getting rid of reference desk DOESN”T mean eradicating the reference sevices from the other LIBRARY SERVICES which a libarary offers.

    My AFFIRMATIVE CONVICTION regarding this issue is due to the idea of making the most out of the productivity of our colleagues who are delegated to carry out their roles as reference desk librarians.

    During the times when they don’t have library patrons to be served, the online reference librarian could do other things and could freely patrol in other units of the library where the staff is really needed, e.g. , circulation unit, reference unit.

    UNLIKE, the reference desk librarian CANNOT DO THAT because a reference desk needs to be manned at all times because at any time of the day, library patrons might come with a reference inquiries. Therefore, they must stay there the whole day waiting the library patrons to come, worst there is nothing to be waited at all.

    Here is my email address:

  13. I think it is an important question and I am torn. What I am excited about are the attempts and experimentation by libraries to provide reference services beyond the desk.

    I just think we have to be open to other service models. The desk is a vaulable service point, but are there other points we miss by focusing on the desk.

    Still pondering the topic — like all interactions with the public the desk depends on the day — good day you love it — bad days you dread it.

  14. When we think about eliminating a time proven essential function of librarians, reference services, I believe that we are considering calling the dogs on ourselves. After all, when we perform reference services at Universities and High Schools, students and patrons know that a reference librarian becomes essential to fast and efficient service in a known location. Sure we can add technology into the reference desk function, because it is part of the essence of the reference service, however, to eliminate the desk altogether may provide reasons not to try to use the library at all. In my library, I create a special service in that I am tech educated and a librarian. So I literally offer the reference service wherever I am on campus simply by using my Iphone or iPod Touch connected through WiFi. I know that when my clerk is not able to serve a patron, a short phone call, beeper, or alarm setting on a mobile tech device can call me to a place I should always be. In the library. Sure tech is a great tool, but to eliminate the reference desk is to take away essential services from patrons today and in the future. I say reference service stays where I am the Library Administrator.

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