Re: Reference

Scott Carlson has an interesting piece in the Chron on the battle of the reference desk – should it still be a place that offers face-to-face, point of need assistance, or should it be a virtual contact, through texting, chatting, and whatever new ways people prefer to communicate?

The ACRL session already covered here gets some play, pointing out that feelings run high and an either/or response can cause real friction. It reminds me of a now-pointless canard: Should we promote use the Internet or of libraries? Obviously, both, and both are converging.

At Gustavus, our students have so far voted with their feet, not their thumbs. They prefer face-to-face, and they attend a residential college expecting it. We chat, too, using their IM client or a chat box right on our Web page, and that’s handy. If I could figure out how to make my thumbs work and how I’d pay for all those text messages, I’d probably do reference that way, as well. But since I carry my wireless laptop to the reference desk, I don’t feel I’m wasting time. I’m just as mobile as our students and get plenty of work done while being visible and available. And being there when they have a question is big for our students – whether the question is big or small, it’s important to them.

Author: Barbara Fister

I'm an academic librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Like all librarians at our small, liberal arts institution I am involved in reference, collection development, and shared management of the library. My area of specialization is instruction, with research interests also in media literacy, popular literacy, publishing, and assessment.

7 thoughts on “Re: Reference”

  1. It’s unfortunate that this has been posed as a question of “traditional” work at the desk (face-to-face) vs. “innovative” work rooted in the use of technology (IM, Facebook, etc.). I think Carlson missed the real point: it’s not face-to-face vs. technology, it’s library-centric service models vs. user-centered service models, or, to use Lorcan Dempsey’s handy phrase, service models that keep us “in the flow” of how faculty and students need to use information and how they can benefit most from the professional expertise of librarians and other information professionals. The adoption by librarians of emergent technologies is an example of this issue, but it is not the only example.

    The critical dimension that Carlson missed was that there are a number of equally innovative service models that privilege face-to-face (or digital) interaction, but that center around librarians being outside the library. He almost caught it in his description of the Michigan librarian, but chose not to pursue an examination of the UM Field Librarian model, or the Virginia Tech College Librarian model, or the office hours that some of our librarians are able to hold in departments, or any of the service models that get librarians out from behind the desk, and focus on the deployment of librarian expertise across campus. These are not defined by their use of technology. They are defined, however, by the need to re-think traditional ways of staffing service desks and of allocating human resources.

    I believe, based on my experience at a departmental library and my experience implementing a “tiered” reference service similar to that described at Colorado State, that there is little future in a service model that demands that our users come to us for access to our most valuable human resources, but I think the full significance of the issue is lost by making it a story about the early adopters and the Luddites.

    This isn’t a story about the need to adopt new modes of communication (that should be obvious by now – IM, Facebook, online learning environments, wherever our users are); this is a story about service models that support our librarians getting out amongst the people they serve and providing service that best meets their needs, rather than service bound to places and expectations designed for an earlier age.

    The “Librarian with a Latte” example is informative: the key point isn’t the technology (a laptop with a wireless connection); the key point is the service that the technology allows the librarian to provide.

  2. Okay, but what about also making sure that when someone is in the library, they can find someone to help without having to go to the hassle to make an appointment?

    I’m all for being wherever you can help people, but our students get very frustrated when they are in the library and nobody’s around to help.

    Then again, at my mostly residential college an awful lot of students go to the library when they want to do academic work. Dorms aren’t that conducive to working on assignments and there aren’t a lot of other places to go. We’ve made ourselves available at slow times on an “on call basis,” but they’ll wait until you’re passing through and approach you rather than IM or e-mail or phone you.

    If we had more librarians, maybe we could go out of the library and hope to help people where they are – but mostly where they are (at least the students when they’re doing their papers and prepping presentaitons) is in the library.

  3. I agree with Barbara about the value of face to face problem solving – and that the faces can meet inside the library or outside. Is working at the reference desk waiting for questions any worse than working and waiting in an office for IM or email?

    I think the results of the University of Rochester’s ethnograpic study of their user community could inform the discussions on where and how to offer reference (information problem solving?) They learned that students don’t like to ask questions “cold” at the desk. They will ask if they have met a librarian in a class, been told to go to the desk by a faculty member or had a good experience getting help at a reference desk.

    Could it be that we spend too little time with our users? Online tutorial, course management systems, web guides. How useful/effective is our liaison work with faculty and students? Do they understand the nature and value of our skills ?

    Do we really understand why some people still come into the Library specifically to ask a question at the physical reference desk?

  4. Hi —

    I’m glad people like the “Librarian with a Latte” idea. It certainly met with great success (and some unique challenges — try fitting over 30 people into the basement of a crowded coffee shop!). I plan on writing a little more about the experience on my blog in a couple of days.

    I must wholeheartedly agree with the direction this discussion is going: the focus is on how we best serve our users — not necessarily the technologies we employ doing so. This takes thinking about the spaces in which they are comfortable, times at which they will need us the most, and preparing for the types of questions we can anticipate. “Librarian with a Latte” was a combination of these: the coffee shop was a central meeting spot and familiar to almost any student on UM’s campus; they had an assignment (an annotated bibliography) due in the coming days; and I had a copy of the assignment before hand, knowing what types of resources the students would be looking for.

    Nothing vastly unique here. I think it goes back to discussions on faculty-librarian partnerships. Without the buy in of my faculty, the Librarian with a Latte event would have never been as well-timed and as constructive for students.

    In fact, when students returned to class, they told the professor how much they wanted more librarian with a latte events — this has led to increased communication between me and my faculty. I’m actively working with faculty I’ve never met before this semester at developing ways to integrate information literacy instruction into the curriculum.

    It’s an interesting example of how reaching out to the students can increase communication with faculty, not the other way around.

    All this boils down to effective liaison work with the department. Being where they are at is important, but so it being “when” they are at, and “why” they are at is too. That made no sense whatsoever, but I hope you get what I’m trying to say. It’s late in the east. 🙂

    Feel free to check out my blog (linked under MISC from my home page) or find me on Facebook — just search for Eric Frierson.


  5. Scott – I think I made this point in the original post about the Columbia reference desk debate. It’s not about getting rid of reference service or its “human touch” value – but about whether ther is still value in centralizing the service at the desk itself. I entirely understand Barbara’s point about having a place where users can find help in the library when they need it. We just did some focus groups with students and based on their comments it’s clear that a central reference desk isn’t a sufficient solution. When they are on the third floor searching the stacks and suddendly need help – no one wants to trot back down to the reference desk. That’s where the video kiosk model could help – the leveraging of new technology to be where the user needs help when they need it – or why can’t we encourage more students to whip out their cell phone and call us on the spot – it’s not as if they aren’t carrying one. I would again point to the vocera approach. Concerned that users won’t find someone who can provide help when they need it in the building. Equip everyone with a communication device so staff are mobilized and able to get to the person who needs help when and where they need it.

  6. One of the most interesting things to me about what academic libraries offering IM/chat refernece have found—is that students sitting at a computer _in_ the library, sometimes just yards from the reference desk, are using IM/chat reference in noticeable proportions.

    Sometimes this online interaction ‘transitions’ to an in-person interaction, when the librarian invites the student over for an in person chat. It would be interesting to see some numbers on this.

    I’m also curious if any librarians in this situation ever offer to walk on over to where the _student_ is to provide more help. “Hey, it would be easier to explain this in person, mind if I walk on over to your computer and show you?”

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