Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Reference Desk As Lifeline to the College

pine needles on sandy soil

In the past I have expressed ambivalence about working at the reference desk. Despite my best efforts to be helpful and kind, I still become frustrated and occasionally bored, and I catch myself hoping for work that is more challenging than answering directional and computer skills questions.

Having said that, there are a number of benefits to the desk that make me think we should not toss it out the window yet, at least at my current institution.

First of all, face time with students allows us a perspective on what is going on that we would not necessarily get otherwise. We can learn sometimes subtle things from observing. For example, this semester I helped a number of students who did not seem to understand the concept of library reserves but were assigned to use them. I interpreted this to mean that their instructors did not understand library reserves sufficiently either, and a logical response was to create and send a hand-out to certain faculty. The reaction was uniformly grateful.

Also, if faculty opt not to work with us, sometimes we only find out about a library-related assignment when a student appears at the reference desk. When a student has a positive experience with a helpful reference librarian, that information makes its way back to the professor and generates organic publicity for the library. It may even motivate the faculty to work more closely with us in the future.

Again, being stationed at the reference desk permits us get a direct look at what students are struggling with, what they do not understand, what information is missing from assignments, etc. Even if a population of students in the library is not representative of an entire class, the information is often useful.

All this translates into opportunities for us to get involved and broadcast the library's relevance. I cannot count the number of times a transaction at the desk has prompted greater involvement in the college or with faculty. I am not confident the same would have occurred if everything was automated, or if I sat in my office all day.

It can be a stretch for an organization to staff a service desk with professionals, and there are many indicators encouraging librarians to move away from this model. Local circumstances vary, obviously, and we should certainly be figuring out how to assist students who no longer come to the library. But as long as the college library has a building and supports academic work, it will be wise in the long-term to hang on to this tradition.

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