Sunday, April 29, 2007

Are Reference Desks Dying Out?

Have a look at this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education April 20, 2007. While not specifically relevant to what we are doing here, it does ring lots of familiar bells.
(courtesy of the Reference Librarian Blog):

Are Reference Desks Dying Out?

Librarians struggle to redefine — and in some cases eliminate — the venerable institution

At the University of California at Merced's library, there is no reference desk and there never has been. The way reference services are delivered there would intrigue some and disturb others.

Consider this example: On a recent weekend, a student asked Michelle Jacobs, one of Merced's librarians, how to get journal articles about child obesity for a political-science paper. Ms. Jacobs gave the student the information he wanted right away. For any reference librarian, this is business as usual — except that the student asked his reference question through a text message.

And Ms. Jacobs answered the question from her cellphone.

And when Ms. Jacobs answered the question, she was at a library conference in Baltimore, almost 3,000 miles from Merced. In fact, Ms. Jacobs regularly answers reference questions from her phone — she handled three that weekend in Baltimore.

It's all in a day's work for Ms. Jacobs. She fields questions through e-mail and instant messaging, and she has even reached out to students through Facebook, where she has her own page. She sat at the reference desk at other colleges before coming to Merced. She doesn't miss it.

"Doing things the way I'm doing them now, I have reached almost twice as many students as when I sat on a reference desk," she says. "I've had time to explore new and innovative things and get a grasp on what makes the latest generation work. They like this technology, and who am I to tell them that this is not the best way to communicate?"

With more librarians like Ms. Jacobs using mobile technologies, the reference desk certainly isn't what it used to be. In fact, some librarians are wondering whether reference desks are needed at all.

Since the advent of the Internet, traffic at reference desks has dropped off considerably, as much as 48 percent since 1991, according to the Association of Research Libraries. Questions that were the stock in trade of reference librarians decades ago — like, "How can I find information about the population and GDP of Uzbekistan?" — can now be answered through a simple Google search. These days, reference librarians are more often responding to banal questions like "How do I look up a book?" and "Where's the bathroom?"

"More and more front-line librarians are finding that what they thought would be reference work is turning out not to be reference work," says Steven Bell, associate university librarian for research and instructional services at Temple University. In a recent forum at Columbia University, he argued that the reference desk would disappear by 2012. "With all of the demands that we have in trying to remain relevant, what is the value of having a highly skilled subject specialist sitting at a desk?"

Adapt or Die

In library circles, questions about the future of reference have lingered for years, and proposals to get rid of the reference desk go back as far as the mid-1980s. Jerry D. Campbell, a former library dean at the University of Southern California who is now president of the Claremont School of Theology, has repeatedly called for reference librarians to adopt technology and let go of the traditional reference desk. "Why didn't you fill a reference vacancy with an engineer and work together to build Ask Jeeves?" he wrote to his peers in the journal Reference and User Services Quarterly in 2000. "If I can't persuade the reference community to reconceive its methods, perhaps I can hire its expertise to help shape a better search engine in a commercial venture."

Reference librarians — painted as stubbornly traditional and backward in Mr. Campbell's article — have over the years tried various technologies to expand reference services. Earlier this decade, many libraries purchased Web-based tools that allowed "co-browsing," in which a reference librarian could take control of the Web browser on a patron's home computer and guide him or her to various Web sites or resources.

However, co-browsing was deemed clunky and cumbersome because it required patrons to download special software. People want librarians to come to them using common communication tools, says Brian Mathews, a reference librarian at the Georgia Institute of Technology who runs a blog called the Ubiquitous Librarian.

"The big trend is using social-networking tools to move beyond the reference desk," he says. "By putting ourselves in blogs and social networks, it opens up a door" to patrons.

High-tech tools could also change the way reference librarians interact with people in their own buildings. At Santa Rosa Junior College, in California, librarians are using wireless paging devices, which can transmit voice communications from pager to pager and also receive transfers from phone calls.

Efforts to get away from the reference desk and enter the world of students aren't purely high-tech. Eric Frierson, a young librarian at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, uses instant messaging, e-mail, blogs, and Facebook for reference services, but he also participates in a service called "Librarian With a Latte." With a laptop and a wireless connection, he sets aside time to sit at a table at a popular Ann Arbor coffee shop and invites students to drop by for help. Dozens of students showed up for one of his recent sessions.

"'Going to where students are' seems to be a theme in social-networking discussions, and they mean virtually," he says. "It's equally important to go where they are physically." The coffee-shop sessions help establish relationships with students that become online interactions later.
Students can get a lot out of online reference services, he says, but face-to-face consultations are easier. "An interaction that would take half an hour online takes five minutes in person," he says.

At the Heart

Within the academic library, the reference desk is traditionally seen as the heart of the institution.

Pulling librarians off the reference desk and making them available by referral or appointment — as some libraries have done — is no trivial move.

Library administrators who are mulling this move have to consider basic trends in reference: Not only are the number of reference questions falling at some libraries, but the bulk of those questions could also be answered by students or staff members with minimal training. For example, at Temple University during the 2005-6 school year, reference-desk questions were down 15 percent from the year before, and they may be on track for another decline this year. In September, one of the busiest months, the reference desk fielded just over 4,400 questions. Of those, 243 involved extensive interaction and research, about 2,300 were simpler reference questions, and more than 1,800 were deemed "directional" — that is, pointing to the stacks, the computers, or the nearest toilet.

At Colorado State University, Catherine Murray-Rust, the library dean, decided to pull the reference librarians off the desk in January and replace them with trained clerical staff. For complicated questions, patrons are referred to the librarians in their offices. Some 190 referrals were made in January, Ms. Murray-Rust says.

But the change was controversial, occurring only after months of heated discussions, and it has led some librarians to retire early. Reference librarians at the college are reluctant to speak on the record, but they say privately that they feel disconnected from students and wonder whether students are getting the best service.

Reference librarians, they explain, have a term of art to describe what they do: the "reference interview." A patron might come to a reference desk with a question about a particular topic, and through gentle prodding and years of expertise, a librarian will discover that the patron is really searching for something completely different and may not even know it.


The diverging visions for reference services — face to face versus virtual, and desk versus no desk — were strikingly, even uncomfortably, apparent at an Association of College & Research Libraries conference session on reference in Baltimore last month.

The message from the panel, which included Mr. Campbell and Mr. Mathews, was direct and clear: Reference services need to get online, get away from the desk, and scale up.

During the session's question-and-answer portion, Kathy DeMey, a reference librarian from Calvin College, stood up and described a poll that her library had done with some 350 English 101 students. The library asked the students what method they preferred when seeking help from a reference librarian — e-mail reference, telephone, online chat or instant messaging, or face to face? Almost 85 percent of the students said they preferred face-to-face interactions with librarians.

When Ms. DeMey mentioned the results, the librarians on the panel ridiculed her, saying that she had probably misread them. Helping students with tough problems can be an ego booster, the panel said, and Ms. DeMey was very likely sentimentalizing her experiences at the reference desk. Others who stood up and extolled the virtues of face-to-face reference interactions got similar dismissive responses.

Mr. Frierson, from the University of Michigan, was sitting next to Ms. DeMey during the meeting.

"I left the session angry," Mr. Frierson says. "They underplayed the value of face to face."

The Reality

But are ego moments and warm fuzzies really the main thing librarians value in a reference desk? And how, exactly, does one scale up the reference experience when the needs of patrons are so individual?

On a recent Tuesday evening at Temple University, the art of the reference interview was on display, as David Murray fielded in-depth questions from whoever happened to walk by.
A young man approached the desk, clearly exasperated. He was writing a term paper about the Battle of Veracruz, in the Mexican-American War. He needed to figure out who owns the battleground now and how it is being maintained. Searches on Google, Wikipedia, and the library catalog had yielded almost nothing.

But he was in luck. Mr. Murray studied Latin American history in graduate school and speaks Spanish. He helped the student locate some war diaries and other resources that might provide a start. He also gave the student his business card and that of one of his colleagues, and told him that he could help track down resources as the paper took shape. The student left looking relieved and grateful.

But earlier in the day, traffic at the desk seemed slower and less gratifying. When one of the desk staplers seized up for the umpteenth time, Derik Badman, a reference librarian, made a wry crack as he fixed it: "I went to graduate school to learn how to unjam staplers."
Gregory McKinney, who worked the reference-desk shift before Mr. Badman that day, and who has spent years cultivating expertise in anthropology, geography, and sociology, was even gloomier about his profession as he sat at the desk.

"I think we get the lazy students that don't want to do anything, and the students who aren't very good," he says.

While he's talking, a student approaches the desk. "Can you load more paper into the printer?" he asks. Mr. McKinney reaches into a cupboard and hands the student a ream of paper.

Recently, he met a brilliant student after teaching a class on library use who talked eloquently about his studies and shook up Mr. McKinney's impressions of the average undergraduate. "He was so intelligent," he says admiringly. "But I'm guessing that students like him never come to the desk because they can more or less do everything for themselves."

But for those who can't, he's still there. A young woman approaches the desk and asks how to find a copy of George Bernard Shaw's play Saint Joan. Without conveying any weariness, Mr. McKinney pulls up a chair to the computer and begins introducing her to that most basic library tool, the online catalog.

http://chronicle.comSection: Information TechnologyVolume 53, Issue 33, Page A37

Doris M Wahl

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