[De]construction of the Reference Desk

I have often wondered where the reference librarian was when I needed them.  Haven’t you?  It seems whenever you need help, it’s after hours, or the librarian is in a meeting (shock!).  But, recently, I came across an article that functions as a model for any library that may be thinking of getting rid of “the desk” and embarking on a more sensible approach; the article I reflect on is called Desk Bound No More: Reference Services at a New Research University Library by Sara Davidson and Susan Mikkelsen.

The University of California Merced campus was the 10th satellite that opened Fall, 2005.  The librarians hired to establish the new library took it upon themselves to reevaluate traditional reference methods and to explore new opportunities that would better serve their students and faculty.  Essentially, they decided that the actual reference desk would no longer be needed and a roving reference approach would be utilized.  However, UC Merced decided to take the roving-reference approach to the next level.

Since their library opening was a fresh start, they were able to set up many different modes of communication that patrons could use to ask reference questions or get help on an assignment.  The librarians eventually decided that they would enable texting, social networking, email,instant messaging, and 24/7 chat capabilities.  They were very conscientious of the students they would be serving by also doing extensive research on the decline of reference services.  The author states that between 1991 and 2007, reference usage was down 51%.  This is greatly attributed to students believing they have the means to do more research themselves and therefore tend to be more self sufficient.  It should also be noted that students who grew up around social networking may be more comfortable communicating that way, and for that reason, walking up to the intimidating desk where the librarian sits may be a little anxious for some.

So, the librarians again took that into consideration and decided to make this non-threatening atmosphere where people could easily ask questions and not have to necessarily wait long for a response.  However, for those who want an answer right away, the library created a Service Desk where simpler reference questions could be answered by a student worker.  This library, like that of Millersville University, highly relies on their student workers in order to function.  I really appreciated that the students were respected so greatly to make decisions about whether a reference question was over their head or if they could in fact answer it themselves.  That is something that I would have liked in my previous experience because I have always looked at reference questions as sort of a puzzle that is extremely gratifying when coming to that conclusion and helping the patron.

It is that very principle these librarians had in mind when they decided to break “tradition.”  This is apparent when Davidson begins discussing the three major reasons they decided to do this based upon their library’s values:

1.  Constantly improve visibility, discoverability, and accessability of the library’s resources

2. Reference interaction should value persistent, asynchronous, multi-user forms of communication.

3. Reference should provide services that reflect our current information and technological environment and the diversity of its users.

However, though philosophically sound, there will always be some minor challenges that need to be overcome, and the article addresses that.  Student workers, since relied upon so heavily, will have to be trained extensively and this must be done so regularly in order to provide the best service possible for users.  It is also important that Davidson notes here, that students must be taught when to refer the patron to the reference librarian (no matter how intimidating that may be).  But the low amount of challenges that are faced with this kind of library, make the change well worth it.

But it is unfortunate that many libraries as we know it will not be making this change any time soon.  The reason this library was able to do that so smoothly and easily is because they were starting fresh.  In a well established academic library, people are not so willing to change either because they cannot visualize the benefits or because they are blind to the problems.  The research within this article clearly shows the rapid decline of reference usage and the proof that majority of the time, students are not at the library during “reference hours.”  I know this from first-hand experience. It seems that the data must be addressed within libraries to break down these walls of tradition and complacency many have set for themselves.

Davidson, Sara andMikkelsen, Susan ‘Desk Bound No More: Reference Services at a New Research University Library’, The Reference Librarian, 50:4, 346 – 355

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