Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Five Reasons to Keep the Reference Desk

Reference sure is getting a lot of airtime these days. It was a topic of major discussion at Midwinter in Seattle, close to a year and a half ago; a profluence of reference service models continues to expand, so quickly that our patrons may at last be forgiven for not knowing where or how to find the reference librarian. And this summer, in Denver, we have the Reference Renaissance conference.

At my library, I sit shifts at the reference desk, take phone calls, do virtual reference via chat and follow-up e-mail, and e-mail back and forth with students. Occasionally a student even finds his or her way into my office to ask me a question in person. I've also taken a laptop to other locations on campus and done in-person reference there, a model that I think requires a ton more promotion than I've been able to give it thus far to really be successful.

The traditional reference desk is getting rather lost in all of this--either buried beneath a flurry of new service models, or disappearing entirely as libraries go to on-call, roaming, by appointment, or other options. In the midst of all of this, I'm reminded of this story about an experience in an Apple store. I'll quote the salient point here:

I'm sure that when the differently-thinking store designers at Apple started blowing each others' minds with their crazy new "store with no cashiers" idea it seemed like a very good idea. If you make every employee a cashier and every location a register, anyone can buy anything anywhere at any time. There's no lines at the cashier and more room to display products - big win all around. Unfortunately the scheduling problem was failing on the two most important counts: to ensure fairness and minimize resource starvation. Customers with a quick purchase aren't just stuck into the same queue as customers with a half hour of questions - they're competing with those customers to locate disguised queues (black-shirted geek: customer or employee?) and pick the right one.

What kind of crazy, outside-the-box solution would work even better here? Let me walk you through my reasoning. Since sales interactions are faster than support you'd probably want to leave one employee dedicated to sales all the time. And since as Apple's own user interface guidelines say, spatial user interfaces work best when they're predictable you'd probably want that employee to stand in a predictable location. Some specific place in the store. Maybe near a table that customers can place their purchases on while the transaction takes place. And since this special employee was performing a special purpose you'd probably want them to be visually distinctive. Maybe place something iconic on the table. Something that denotes "purchase transaction" in our cultural zeitgeist. Something like, oh I don't know, A CASH REGISTER.

The point here about a clearly designated service point is something that librarians ought to take into account as we decide how to provide reference service now and in the future. And, as old-fashioned and traditional as a DESK where one can find LIBRARIANS (to borrow tongodeon's style of emphasis) might be, here are five reasons to keep it:

  1. Visibility: a frequent complaint in this profession is that our patrons don't know who we are or what we do. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this isn't a new problem, and there's probably data somewhere to back it up. A downside of almost every reference service model I've heard tell of (roaming the library being a notable exception) is that librarians disappear: we're on the other end of a chat connection or sequestered in our offices. Making people go to additional effort to find us and find out about us does not strike me as a particularly good idea.
  2. Awareness of what's going on in the library: if you've never read John Seely Brown and Paul Deguid's The Social Life of Information, get your hands on it right now and at least skim the introduction. For all our wikis (which replaced intranets which replaced internal listservs which replaced bulletin boards), the primary way that everything from office gossip to important developments such as massive printer failures and workarounds when your link resolver fails to function as advertised is through people talking with each other. I get the most important information for my reference shift by talking to whoever I'm taking over from and the tech support staff who share our desk. Would that stuff still get passed in isolation? Maybe. If your communication systems are really good and you have a successful culture of using them. Or, you could use the system and culture you've already got.
  3. Step into my office: in my other life, I have occasion to buy boxing equipment. One of the suppliers I buy from sells a t-shirt with an image of a boxing ring and the caption, "Step into my office." The point being, the boxing coach's office isn't where he or she works. The ring is. Librarians don't just work in our offices, or online. We work in libraries, and libraries are still places, even though their collections and services are increasingly uncoupled from those places. One advantage a reference desk has over other models is that, if you put it in the right place, the entire library becomes your office. Which is as it should be.
  4. The best service is still in person. My first job out of college was answering customer service e-mails for At that time, people were still sort of boggled at the idea of a store that had no physical storefront. "Are you sure there isn't somewhere we can come pick up orders?" they'd ask. Yes, we were. And most of the time, that was okay. Especially since Amazon's principal customers at the time were Web-savvy sorts who didn't need much help navigating the site. Most of the questions were about stock levels and credit card security. Then, one day, I got this question: "Hi. We just got our first computer and went online for the first time, and the only website address we knew was yours. How does this work?" It was a great conversation, actually, and when we hung up half an hour later those customers had successfully placed their first order and, if I had anything to do with it, came back to make many more purchases over the years. But oh, what I would've given to be able to show them how to do it in person. You can talk co-browse and webcam and videoconference all you want, and they often work well and sometimes they're your only option (when you're working primarily with distance learners, for example), but sometimes you, and your patron, just have to get together.
  5. Identifiable service point. Once again, this gets back to the excerpt posted above. This is related to, but distinct from, the point about visibility. Visibility increases people's awareness of you. An identifiable service point tells them where to go. Reference interviews are more analogous to support than sales, but the rest of the parable holds: if you want people to be able to find your reference service, it should be in a predictable location. Some specific place in the library, perhaps. Someplace visually distinctive. With something that denotes "reference" in our cultural zeitgeist.
But what denotes reference, particularly since a distressing number of people don't seem to know what reference is, while anyone old enough to have an allowance can identify a cash register?


Maybe that's the problem.

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