the future of the reference desk

I’m not sure the reference desk makes the most sense anymore. I say that, though, based entirely on my own experiences at my own institution. Most of the questions I get are either way out of my league and something for a subject specialist, or they are super simple “how do I print” or “where is the restroom” types of questions. Rarely am I asked something that is challenging enough that I’m glad to be there but also isn’t a four hour long, in-depth issue.

So I think about what reference should be like. I work on strategies to make it easier to automate parts of reference. I try to focus on really, really good instruction. I look for ways to help students help themselves.

I’m not sure what the right answer is. I know it’s not one-size fits all. (I have a friend who has reference shifts so busy that she never takes work to the desk, and I know there are a lot of other places like this.) I wonder if there should be more help on the website, clearer interfaces, information literacy marketing campaigns.

So, I did some digging and found a bunch of articles, blog posts, and conference presentations on the topic. Here is a random sample (I’ll get around to the rest later) in date order:

2007, March 26: Debating the Future of the Reference Desk by Steven Bell and Sarah Watstein

Arguments for getting rid of the desk:

  • Wireless technology enables a different type of reference model
  • Students and library staff can answer questions, librarians can sometimes make mistakes
  • Triage technologies allow librarians to focus more time on other work
  • The real time consuming questions should be addressed away from the desk
  • “Getting rid of the [symbol] does not mean getting rid of the service”
  • Human touch of reference can move to other areas such as instruction, residence halls, academic departments, etc.

Arguments for keeping the desk:

  • Desk is tied to history and culture
  • Personal service is more important due to technology
  • Searching gets more complicated due to fancy new tools
  • In person reference allows for more meaningful teachable moments

2007, April 10: Whither Reference? At ACRL, Skepticism Persists from Library Journal Academic Newswire

  • (At least some) reference departments are seeing a serious decline in numbers no matter how they adapt their services
  • chat, roaming, deskless, and walkie-talkie reference
  • IM, MySpace, Friendster, Second Life
  • Terminology might be a problem. “Reference” is a librarian’s term.

2007, April 20: Are Reference Desks Dying Out? by Scott Carlson

  • The University of California at Merced does not have a reference desk (and never did)
  • Adapting reference means librarians can provide the service even when away (at a conference, etc)
  • Reference traffic has dropped 48% since 1991
  • Using technology and spaces that students are comfortable with, librarians can provide reference without the desk
My name is Lauren Pressley. This is where I think out loud, document what I'm doing, and share the things that I like. I'm the Director for Learning Environments at Virginia Tech University Libraries and author of a few books. This blog focuses on libraries, education, information, & the internet. When not at work or blogging, I spend most of my time with John and our son, Leif.

8 thoughts on “the future of the reference desk

  1. Whenever this question comes up, I can’t help but think about one of the cousins to the reference desk — namely, the customer service department of a typical business. I can think of nothing more frustrating for me as a consumer than to contact a business with a question that requires thought and judgment only to find a slug on the other end of the transaction who automatically refers me to an inscrutable Web site. Based on such evidence from business, it is likely that many libraries will use the changing nature of the reference desk as a cover for providing less service. Maybe one question to ask is what standards of old-fashioned reference need to be transferred to new technology?

  2. We (at the U of Denver) changed our “Reference Desk” name to the Research Help Desk, and students understand that terminology a little bit better. We also changed our service model to just have grad students (LIS for the most part) work at the Research Help Desk, while the reference librarians schedule 30-60 min consultations for the more in-depth questions.

    In August of 2008, BCR and RUSA sponsored a conference called the Reference Renaissance. I was not able to attend, but this (and other) PowerPoints might be of interest — Amelia Brunskill, Dickinson College, PA, “The Desk is Gone” —

    Tootles, Joe

  3. Mary Beth: I can’t wait to see the paper!!

    George: Good points. I especially like your last question. I do think a lot of this is institution specific. Laurie left a good point on my Facebook about how her public library has a very busy reference desk (with questions we just don’t get). I agree, the stereotypical customer service, refer to a website, have a horrible experience, is something we don’t want to imitate. But with evidence that a lot of college library users want to help themselves, I think a really well designed library website (with built-in excellent training materials) can help, particularly if the web design process includes usability testing… which I wish more places would do in general. :)

    Joe: I love the terminology change, much more user-centered! I also think that your grad model/consultations is a good one. We use a consultation model in addition to the ref desk hours, and our consultation stats are increasing at an amazing rate. I think we might see this emerge as a practice standard. Thanks for reminding me about the Reference Renaissance. I’ll check out the powerpoint right away!

  4. I’m in library school at the moment and I was wondering if anyone thinks that the reference desk will use webcams at some point to conduct reference interviews?

    We use email and instant messaging so it seems that to use technology at its fullest for a perfect technology-orientated interview we would use webcams.

    Thanks! I really enjoyed reading your blog and comments :)

  5. Emily, good point! Char Booth is doing some interesting work using Skype for reference at Ohio University. I often wonder if it would be useful for our study abroad students.

    For what it’s worth, the students I talk to say they don’t call the reference desk from the library because of the noise they would make on the phone. I think that they would have a similar reaction to using video within the library. However, from residence halls, apartments, and other countries, it could be a good fit.

    Thanks for your comment!

  6. I agree that this is the future. The costumer service is very important. and some
    people need a human not just a machine.

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