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.

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.

So What If We Do Pander To Students

Back on March 9 I participated in a debate about the future of the reference desk. This was part of an annual Reference Symposium sponsored by the Columbia University Libraries. The debate resolution was “be it resolved that research libraries will no longer have reference desks by 2012.” I argued for the affirmative. Among the trends I cited in favor of the resolution were a more mobile society, a user population that wants to get service when and where they want it (as opposed to having to come to a fixed point in the library to get it), and the general decline in traditional reference questions. Arguing that the power of new mobile technologies to deliver information when and where it’s needed, along with the inefficiencies of the current reference desk model for both librarians and library users, I thought I made a compelling case for eliminating the reference desk – not the service – just the physical entity. A vote before and after the debate indicated that attendees were not moved by my arguments. The majority was clearly opposed to the resolution.

But one particular point I made drew an interesting response. During one of my opportunities to speak I indicated that we needed to get out from behind reference desks in order to connect with users on their turf. I said this was especially important for millennial generation students because we couldn’t expect them to come to the library to wait for an authority figure behind a desk to provide answers. An attendee, during the questioning period, asked if that point was just another way of saying that we should pander to students who wanted it their way. This individual claimed that students come to college to learn how to deal with the real world, and that by bending over backwards to accommodate students who expect to get it their way wherever and whenever they want it we were actually doing them a disservice.

I understand how that individual feels because I’ve made similar points previously about our interactions with millennial students. The common thinking seems to be that we now have to change everything because these students learn and behave differently, and our traditional methods will be ineffective. So it’s not unreasonable to ask why we should change rather than expect students to change to fit our traditional academic library culture. I responded that it was perhaps best not to think of it as pandering, but rather being student focused and shifting our ways of doing business to meet the needs of our students. To that I added that reaching out to students in their places, whether it be classrooms, dorms, cafeterias, or academic departments, made sense in today’s mobile society – that we need to be where students are to increase our opportunities for productive interaction (I would venture to say that extends to online social networks in situations where interaction with specific students was a pre-existing condition – and I know there’s lots of disagreement with that position).

So while I’m generally not in favor of pandering or kowtowing to students just to get them to acknowledge we exist, I do think it makes good sense to re-engineer reference services so that we are providing it to the user community on their turf. You can avoid doing so, if you think this is pandering, at risk of your own obsolescence.

More on the reference debate on Monday.