Monday, October 15, 2007

Article Note: On eliminating the reference desk

Citation for the article:

Bell, Steven J. "Who Needs a Reference Desk?" Library Issues 27.6 (July 2007).

Read via routing.

My director asked me to read this article as we are looking at new ways to provide reference and library services. In my humble view, I fall on the camp that feels the reference desk is not going to disappear. I am kind of a moderate, so to speak. Yes, we will have new ways of providing service, but we are also keeping the reference desk. I am guessing some hybridity will occur. Interestingly enough, I was asked about that very topic in one of the campus job interviews I was out on recently, which made me aware of the recent debate done in Midwinter. Maybe one of these days I will put up that presentation, or parts of it at least. Anyhow, the article I read here does make some good points and gives some food for thought. But I wondered about a couple of things.

One, the apparent dismissal of the fact that some campuses really can say "our students are different." While I am not saying that one cannot be open to mobile options, there are times and places when a reference desk does make a good contact point. When I was working at UHD, the reference desk was the central location for students to get their needs met. The students there expect to have that service. So do the students at my current place of work, though not as much (they are bit more used to finding an area liaison once they learn about that). Along with this is the idea of mobile technology use. UHD would be a perfect illustration. The article does promote the use of mobile devices and things like instant messaging and/or chat. I already know from my three-year experience that those students simply did not use mobile technologies as much. A lot of the things that many 2.0 preachers advocate simply did not work, and no, I am not saying it for a lack of trying. I have been a user of instant messaging and other tools, and stats simply were not there to support the notion of spreading out reference services. Professor Bell writes that "contemporary students register online, chat with their advisor by instant messenger, and keep friends in close contact with text messaging." Yes on the registering and friend messaging, but a big no on chatting with the advisors by instant messenger. They may use the phone and call advising while registering. At least that was the set-up I have seen. I am sure other campuses may offer the messaging option. Does it mean that will always be the case? No. Future always brings change, but one has to work in the moment as well.

The other thing that made me think is that the article did not have any acknowledgment of staffing issues. In some settings (there goes that uniqueness again), there simply is not enough staff. And I am not talking just librarians. I means staff as in all the library staff. Maintaining other forms of reference service, which is what the article advocates, does take resources and staffing as well. Chat and messenger services have to be staffed. And by the way, online chat services are often notorious for very low usage statistics (here is one article discussing the issue from Information Today..Here is another example, and I am just doing the most cursory of searches. I am sure I could come up with more.) So, would that really be efficient use of resources? Other points of service as well. Some campuses will be asking where will the staff come from. I did not really see an answer in the article.

I do think we should always be exploring new reference models. It is one of the things we are doing here at my current place of work. I have been observing the reference desk operations for a bit now. Part of it is to get a grasp on the local procedures and the kind of questions that come in. A couple of my colleagues are already offering suggestions for both the desk and the reference area. All this is feedback I need to hear. But overall, at least for now, it may be a while yet before the reference desk itself goes away.

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