Monday, May 26, 2008

Providing Reference Services

(Cornell graduation ceremonies on Sunday)

Almost whenever I spend time at the reference desk, I find myself thinking "there has got to be a better way." That is, a better way to provide research help to students. I've watched a student sit at a computer station and struggle, increasingly frustrated, trying to do library research, and the idea never occurs to him/her to walk over to the reference desk 10 feet away and ask the librarian for help. I know, I know, in this case it's my responsibility to stand up and walk over to him/her and ask if they need assistance, but the point is that it's not obvious to the student that I can help.

I know there are many tools besides the reference desk that librarians can use -- online chat, email, the phone -- but I don't believe those are currently satisfying the need either, and they're often more of a hassle than what's involved in a straightforward face-to-face encounter.

Is it a problem with image? Have librarians been so long considered the gatekeepers that they're not associated with patient, helpful research assistance? Is it the space -- that students go to the library to work quietly or to study (or, very rarely, to grab a book), not to find help with research? Where do they go when they start thinking about research? If it's google, we librarians need to rethink our strategy here. If it's google, we can sit at the library ref desk 24/7 and it's not going to help students.

The images that appear in my mind are these:
-a student comes to the library to use the space/ambience -- the computers, the desks, or the quiet -- and the only time they look for help is when they have computer problems.
-On the other hand, when a student sits down to start thinking about research, what she/he often needs is a librarian to help at efficiently finding the necessary information. But where's the librarian? At the library. So physical space becomes an impediment. At this point it's ideal to have a free, back and forth dialogue with the librarian, but none of the tools besides face-to-face interaction accomplishes this perfectly. Unless the student happens to be sitting in the library, the librarian is not fully reachable. 

This is the challenge to librarians then: getting rid of the library building when it's not necessary for research assistance, and getting rid of the librarian when the building facilities are what's needed. 

One idea I've been working on, besides embedding librarians in online classes, is to have the librarian chat button EVERYWHERE, and not just on library pages. If students start to think about research help being available through instant messaging, maybe they'll start to use it. (And hey, it's better than nothing.) Unfortunately, turf wars being what they are, I can't imagine a 'chat with the librarian' being embraced throughout a campus community and placed on most/all pages, so I'll keep dreaming.


  1. I've used the "chat with a librarian" button at school several times, and it's usually at least given me a few ideas if not been quite helpful. If there were, for example, an "instant messenger" (AIM, gchat, whatever) screen-name I could use to contact the library at any time I would *definetely* use that. But maybe they don't want it to be that easy...

  2. I'm really glad to hear someone had a good experience with it -- which school? Cornell? I got to observe the way Cornell handles reference chat, and their whole set-up is really impressive. I know they put a ton of time and resources into the service. Unfortunately I couldn't figure out how to duplicate what they're doing given the constraints on time and resources at the other (smaller) places I've worked.

    I've thought about giving out my personal screen name (but then, would people contact me when at home or not wearing my librarian hat? ick), and I've thought about going really simple and creating an institutional account through meebo...of course then you run into only being able to provide chat hours for when the library is open.

    The U Penn library has a nice IM page, but I think chat services are often only buried in "ask a librarian." (And UPenn are huge and have lots of $$). I know the systems librarian at SUNY Delhi, and it looks like they've put a widget on their home page (bottom left). I'll have to ask her how much traffic they get.