Tuesday, June 30, 2009

What is a Reference Librarian, and Does It Need a Desk?

evergreen whose name I can't remember

(A follow-up to last week's "What is Reference, and Does It Need a Section?")

I hate to even bring this up, because I have benefited from the current system of hiring professional librarians to staff the reference desk, but I'm going to anyways. Maybe it will play right into the hands of every director and budget manager looking for ways to cut spending, but I want to face things honestly. So I'm asking the question: Do we need professional librarians to staff public reference desks?

Having experienced the joy of uninterrupted work this summer, now that I am no longer scheduled every day at the reference desk, I cannot pretend to be objective about this. Personally I think that 90 percent of the time I'm sitting at the reference desk could be better spent in my office -- concentrating on LibGuides, working with faculty, creating library support services for students in online classes, fixing the e-reserves system, etc. etc. etc.

However, this is not to say that students don't need orientation to the library and, more importantly, the global information environment. It's just that those are not the needs I encounter at the reference desk. Rather, the majority of the needs at the reference desk are directional or technical, and have nothing to do with library services. In fact, most of the students I see at the reference desk would be better served by staff at the Tutoring Center or the Computer Lab. Also, I strongly suspect that of the reference questions I do get, students would find satisfactory solutions independently if I wasn't sitting near their computers.

I know a fair number of patrons, not to mention librarians, who would kick and scream about this prognosis. But to me it's a practical matter: The number of hours I'm at work are limited, and so how can I spend them most productively in terms of being useful to the library and the college? I would be thrilled to provide help by appointment. I can accept having a 'librarian on-call' status from my office. I'm happy to provide library orientation and information literacy instruction by scheduling classes and having students come to the library classroom to use computers. What I am not so happy about are the hours at the reference desk, when I think my time could be deployed more usefully and efficiently doing other things.

So where does this leave the 'traditional' reference desk? To quote myself: Ultimately, I'm afraid it is at best ornamental. There, I said it.


  1. My only concern is that the reference positions usually are geared towards entry-level librarians, which means there might not be a place for a librarian with less than 3-5 years of experience. I am a paraprofessional and a soon-to-be-finished library science student and have gained a lot of experience working at the reference desk. Even though I have had reference experience, I wonder if a potential employer would consider me for anything beyond a entry level position.

  2. The main reason it's important to have Librarians at a reference desk is to help students and faculty realize that there ARE professionals to helps them. Yes, anyone can point students to the bathroom, and anyone with 3 hours of experience can tell a student where to find a book, but only a trained and experienced person can recognize by the type of call number, the way the questioner carries him/herself when to proceed with the reference interview...not just a "click here, then click here, then click here..." kind of answer.

    The previous poster is right, library admins keep putting inexperienced people out front. Anyone who's been helped by an experienced librarian knows how valuable they are to researchers. Please don't throw up your hands and say "anyone could do this" Anyone can be an unskilled librarian, but being a good reference librarian is more useful and gains more respect for the profession than being an admin, a cataloger or an instruction only librarian.

  3. I'm very glad to hear that Anonymous #2 recognizes the value of having librarians at the reference desk -- I will be keeping these motivational thoughts in mind as I embark on another semester.

    However, I disagree that having a librarian at the service desk earns us professional respect. I think non-librarians are often extremely surprised to find a person with expertise and a master's degree staffing a public service desk. I also wonder if higher-ups at academic institutions, when they think of librarians at all, say to themselves, 'wow, spending their time at a public service desk is really the most valuable thing they could be doing? They must not have a lot to do.'

    This is NOT to celebrate the fact that public service expectations have declined over the last several decades, but to say that the library reference desk is one of the few examples I can think of where a qualified, competent professional is sitting at a desk where any member of the public is free to approach. I'm really not sure we get (enough) general credit & recognition for this, and I'm not sure that's going to change anytime soon...

    Again, I'm sorry if this sounds curmudgeonly. I would be happy to be persuaded of the opposite.