Rethinking My Own Reference

My official title is “General & Humanities Reference Librarian,” but I don’t use it much. Partly it’s because a goodly portion of my job is collection development, but that’s not the only reason. It’s a good title as these things go, and nothing to be ashamed of, but when I think “reference librarian,” one thing comes first to mind. Reference librarians sit at desks in rooms full of reference books and wait for questions. Sure, they do more, but they still do this. Whether this is a good thing depends upon your library, and I can’t say how much your library might be like mine. But as long as that’s part of being a reference librarian, then “reference librarian” seems outdated for a lot of librarians.

Sitting at Desks

Reference librarians sit at desks in rooms full of reference books and wait for questions. Librarians have been arguing about the desk for years, but the reference desk still seems to figure prominently in libraries. I don’t know of any offhand that have gotten rid of theirs, and only a few places practicing the Brandeis model, though you probably know of more. On my last reference shift, I cleared a printer jam and refilled a stapler. The closest thing to a reference question I got was a visiting scholar asking me to look up an old communist newspaper in the catalog (which he’d already done, and which he knew we didn’t have). I then listened politely while he loudly told me how amazed and stunned he was that we didn’t have this on microfilm. No, perhaps the closest thing to a reference question was his follow-up question: WHY don’t you have this on microfilm? That’s one that with a little research and speculation I could probably answer. However, because of my knowledge of the reference interview, I know that’s not really the question he wanted answered. Is that an atypical desk shift? For some librarians it doesn’t matter. We sit and sit and sit and sit, and that’s what makes a reference librarian.

In Rooms Full of Reference Books

Reference librarians sit at desks in rooms full of reference books and wait for questions. Reference books seem to show no sign of diminishing in volume. There are specialized thises and concise thats on just about every topic under the sun. Some of these reference books are quite good, or at least I assume they are, because I couldn’t tell you the last time I consulted a reference book other than a foreign language dictionary. The only reference book anyone has asked me for recently is the Liddell-Scott lexicon. I do sometimes consult reference works, but typically only the large online sets. Smaller works are often most useful for answering quick factual questions, but I don’t get any quick factual questions, because everyone asking those just goes to Google or the Wikipedia. The background information and clarification of terms I need usually comes from just a handful of large online reference titles, and sometimes just from the Wikipedia for those subjects that traditional reference sources don’t handle well. (Whether contemporary British Islamic rap music is haram is a recent question that springs to mind. Is there a reference work with an entry on Fun-Da-Mental?) Some of my colleagues consult the books more often. One of my colleagues has been working in our reference room since I was three, and she’ll turn to the books and find great information. The question isn’t the usefulness of reference books, but whether the same information isn’t found more easily elsewhere. After a few years, not turning to reference books first became rarely turning to reference books at all.

I’m looking through my old reference textbook for all the kinds of books I don’t go to anymore. Directories? Never in print, almost never online. Almanacs? Typically only for historical questions. Atlases? Occasionally. Bibliographies? Years ago, I know librarians would write subject bibliographies. They might still write them, but I wouldn’t know because I never go to them. I used to try, but they were always dated. I’d find the perfect bibliography on some obscure subject only to realize it was written in 1974. So much of the information available only in reference books is now online for free or fee, and yet the reference books keep coming, and we keep buying them. Maybe that’s a good thing, but it seems like a fruitless attempt to control information by methods designed for a time when there was a lot less information to control.

Waiting for Questions

Reference librarians sit at desks in rooms full of reference books and wait for questions. I like to answer reference questions. I just rarely get any, at the desk. I’d be happy to get rid of the desk and hire a student to fill the staplers and search titles in the catalog. Sitting at a reference desk waiting patiently for the questions that never come–the questions using even a small portion of my research expertise–is a waste of my time.

What about the students? Don’t they need help? Yes, they do. I meet with a lot of students and answer a lot of emails from students, but they don’t come to the desk. They come to me because of my own outreach or instruction efforts, and that’s the case with much of the reference and research help done here. Students in the philosophy and religion departments know who I am and that they can come visit me because I go meet them all every year. The freshman writing seminars all have librarians assigned to them whose purpose is to help the students when they need help. So in any given semester, dozens of students of all years know they can contact me if they need library help, so they contact me directly. I much prefer this to the desk, because it gives them more personal and directed help. It also helps explain why they students don’t come to the desk as often. I help them get started or go farther on research essays; I help them find books and articles and other relevant material; I help them formulate research questions and get relevant background information. And I can help the advanced students more in arranged consultations in my office because I can prepare and learn something about the topics in advance. This is better for both of us than me trying to do it on the fly.

There are plenty of other options besides the desk, or even besides the outreach that I prefer. We also have a research consultation service. We have email reference. Oh, and there’s a page listing subject specialists people can contact directly. And all the databases-by-subject pages and research guides have names and contact information on them. And we have chat reference for those needing a quick answer. With all of the outreach, instruction, and easily available consultation, the reference desk fades in importance. I’d like to see it fade more, because I think there are better, more personal, and more efficient ways to provide research help.

But what about the small handful of people who wander up to the desk occasionally and expect a professional librarian to be sitting there ready to answer any complex question that they may have? What about that? I’ve heard that objection before, though not couched in quite those terms. The question is usually put more mildly, but that is the assumption behind the question. What about when someone has an immediate information need that can only be solved by a librarian? First, what are the chances that any given librarian sitting at a desk can solve every complex information problem? Low, I’d bet. Second, there are still librarians in the building. We can find one. Third, let’s check the stats. How often does this occur? Is there no cost-to-benefit ratio for the librarian’s time? If there are lots of reference questions, then staff the desk with reference librarians. But otherwise . . . .

I realize reference is different everywhere. Perhaps in your library the reference questions come fast and thick at the desk. At my library the questions often get filtered out before they make it to the desk. On the other hand, the reference desk is a great place to blog.

2 thoughts on “Rethinking My Own Reference

  1. We are using the Brandeis model, or at least our version of it, here (the Health Science library at VCU). Non-librarian desk staff are trained to triage questions and call the on-call reference/education/research librarian whenever necessary. The rest of the time we are doing outreach in our liaison departments and teaching, as well as other fun librarian-type stuff (MLA posters and papers, writing articles, etc.) I was skeptical at first but I’ve seen this method work quite well, at least in this situation – mainly professional school students and research faculty and doctors. The undergrad library on campus does not follow this model. They still staff a reference desk, and the students still use it. So I guess it all depends on your patrons and your mission.

  2. I agree that it all depends on your situation. I’ve worked at very busy reference desks. After writing this I talked to a couple of friends who work at busy desks, and one difference seems to be they work at huge state universities with tens of thousands of students. My interest is in using our time as wisely as possible to meet the user needs.

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