Category Archives: academic libraries

The Reference Desk went that-a-way

A hallowed piece of furniture in that tradition-bound institution called the library will soon be pulling off a disappearing act, or at least a huge metamorphosis.

If someone from the not-too-distant past could have stepped into a time machine to come to our libraries today, they might be shocked. Actually, some people living today and now are outraged and shocked.

It’s about the reference desk and reference service. It’s about the coming of the Learning Commons. And it’s hit the ACC Library.

The ACC Library Reference Desk will be going ’bye, ’bye. No more Reference Desk.
So, big deal, some of you may say.

Well, let’s put this in perspective and in context—like, what does this reflect and signify nationally and here at ACC?

Reference desks (in plainer English, “information desks”), are transmuting into something else, or even becoming extinct, in a manner of speaking. (One library conference speaker has predicted that reference desks will disappear by 2012.)

Reference desks have been distinct entities within a library, staffed by librarians with masters degrees. There used to be discussions about whether librarians should stand or sit in front of the reference desk, to be more welcoming, instead of behind a desk, which could be a psychological barrier to timid patrons needing help. There were also experiments with librarians wandering around away from the reference desk like retail store clerks, accosting patrons (renamed “customers”) with offers of help. (This latter approach is out of favor and been dumped, because librarians, whether deserved or not, started getting the image of being pesky and obnoxious).

Well, these debates of differing approaches to reference service may become moot. Some reference desks are merging with the circulation (checkout) desk or moving somewhere else and becoming “help desks” for every type of question and problem, from how to use the photocopier all the way to how to research a topic.

And, what’s sacrilegious and upsetting to some longtime librarians—some of these desks are now being staffed by trained students, clerks, or “paraprofessionals.” One good way to ruffle the feathers of graduate school-trained librarian is to have someone coming in off the street referring to anyone and everyone behind the desk at a library as a “librarian.” Well, that issue becomes even murkier now.

An example of drastic change relatively close to home is the Colorado State University Library in Fort Collins where librarians were pulled off the reference desk three years ago, to be replaced by “trained clerical staff.” The change was not warmly received by the CSU librarians, to put it mildly, and, in fact, some retired in protest. Off-the record, librarians said they felt disconnected from students and wondered if students were getting the best service.

The CSU Library Help Desk, as explained on their website (with phone number included), helps “start your research, locate books and journal articles, and get assistance with library computers and equipment.” A separate Help Desk is for students with technical problems dealing with their computer, wireless networking, e-mail, student accounts, and other issues. A separate “Ask a Librarian” page gives an e-mail address to librarians. Students in the library with “complicated” reference questions are referred to librarians in their offices. In the first month of this transition, some 190 referrals were made to the librarians.

Technology is playing an integral role in the transformation of library reference service. Librarians can be reached 24/7 by live texting from links on library Web pages (ACC has such a link to AskAcademic—click “Have a Question” on our Library’s homepage). Social media are also used for accessing librarians, such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Some libraries equip their librarians with pagers and cell phones for maximum access, further negating the need for librarians to be stuck to a reference desk.

Librarians across the country, however, are decrying the slide away from face-to-face librarian interactions with their patrons, a form of communication that works best for many learners and information seekers. (A poll at Calvin College, Massachusetts, found that 85 percent of students preferred face-to-face interactions with librarians.)

A partial antidote to this service disconnect are experiments with librarian outreach to the community—physically stationing themselves in places such as malls and coffee shops. At the University of Michigan, “Librarian with a Latte” sessions placed a librarian with a laptop in a popular coffee shop, inviting students to drop by for help. The idea is to be “where the students are,” both virtually (as in social networking) and physically. The coffee shop sessions aimed to establish relationships that would become online interactions later.

Yes, this is not your father’s library.

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Filed under academic libraries, ACC Library, learning commons