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.