Tuesday, June 30, 2009
What is a Reference Librarian, and Does It Need a Desk?
(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.