reference desks

Since I read Brian Mathews’ post on the ACRL reference desk discussion, along with the Chronicle article he cited, and a friend’s response I saw out there in the blogosphere, I’ve been thinking about what the reference desk means to me.

Much of my training in medical librarianship happened at a very busy academic medical library reference desk. That’s where I learned my citation verification skills (if there is one thing I can do well, it is verify a citation), database searching, etc. I had my MEDLINE teaching script down pat from the ten or twenty times a day I would go through the spiel. Working on weekends, there would be multiple patrons waiting for help sometimes–and during the week, when there were usually 3 people staffing the desk, there would still be people who had to wait. But that was when we still taught Ovid in telnet form, and even though it was obviously not that long ago, things change. I hear that library is thinking of merging the reference desk with the circulation desk there now.

I’ve also worked in a place where the reference librarians hardly saw any patrons at all–it was all done cheap and online. There, my citation verification skills weren’t really needed, and I had to learn PubMed and Google searching right quick. But the lack of reference desk never bothered me in the least, because it was a completely different work environment–a reference desk would have been pointless. I spent 7-8 hours a day doing lit searches for patrons there. Teaching patrons how to search was not a major goal.

My current position is a little strange reference desk-wise. My library doesn’t have one–students usually stand by the swinging door of the circ desk and yell through my door at me until I either stand up and go to them or until they get brave enough to actually pass the swinging door threshold. (I tell them all that my door is always open to them, but everyone still has hang-ups about actually taking advantage of that, especially with the swinging door.) I do work at a “reference” desk once a week at another library on campus, but it is nothing like the reference desk I trained at. I generally spend the entire time verifying citations–lots and lots of citations. It imbues me with nostalgia for those earlier days. 🙂 If I get a question, it is maybe something to the effect of looking up a book. Today was rather excellent for reference, though. Not only did I have a ton of citations that were bloody impossible to track down (my absolute favorites, of course), I had an emeritus staff member come in who needed two articles that he wrote in the late 30’s and early 40’s, and I got to show a little reference prowess and do a citation search in Science Citation Index, pulling them up immediately. Then, while they got copied, I had the privilege of listening to some of his stories about the old days at my institution. He was hilarious. All in all, it was a good day at the desk.

Most of the time when I am at that reference desk, I’ll hear reference questions come in on the phone, but they are never transferred to me–they are sent up to the real reference desk, which is not a desk at all, of course, but a set of offices. Just like my office in my library, but with more and more talented reference librarians.

So, in large part, I guess I feel dissociated from the reference desk debate. Without training at one, I would have basically no skills at all with which to sit back in my office and pretend to be an all-knowing guru. But, it has been many a year now since I’ve really worked at a reference desk, so I suppose I think they are superfluous in many types of medical library. It’s not really the desk that matters so much as the librarians. For that to work, though, I think there has to be a lot of effort put into making people realize that reference librarians are there to help. For my current institution, it is long-ingrained into the culture and the fabric of the place–people talk, people know, and people stay here forever. At my previous institution, it was likewise part of the culture, but even so, it took a lot of marketing and putting myself out there to get to the point where practically all I did was lit searching–I had a lot of trust to build.

I’ve always hated the idea of roving reference. Maybe it is because I am a hopeless introvert, or maybe it is because I find business model reference/libraries disturbing. Probably it is a little of both. The liaison model is absolutely on the right track–I really admire the librarian (sorry, can’t remember who it was–anyone want to enlighten me?) who went around and introduced herself to all the faculty in the (biology?) department she was working with nearly as soon as she started. I am really enthused about some of the other types of reference being undertaken right now: IM (can’t do it at my institution), Facebook (plan to start with incoming class), etc. I really loved that video IM idea presented at ACRL. Now, I just have no possible reason to implement that, but it sure would be great for massive academic libraries.

Basically, I think that reference is just so specific to each institution that making any kind of generalization about it is bound to be wrong. And, I guess that is why I don’t feel like the librarians on the ACRL panel should have been expected to give answers. How can they give answers when they don’t know a specific library’s culture, patrons, and layout? But, that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t challenge us all to think about the nature of what reference is and how we want to provide it. Face to face reference isn’t always the only way to create personal relationships with patrons.


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