Reference Desk Reverence?

In my own experience (and somewhat amplified by the Master’s Degree posts (first, second), there is a mystique that is lent to the reference desk like no other place in the library (save for closed stacks, the final mystery of the library world). It is the sacred space for the librarian immortals and perhaps the paraprofessional demigods who prove themselves worthy of its station. From behind this lauded furniture, answers are dispensed to all who seek wisdom within the walls of the library. It is the desk of last resort for those who continue to question, the deliverer of information redemption, and start of many journeys into discovery. To hear some of my peers talk about the reference desk, you would think that the desk was made of wood cut down by God, carved by Jesus, and blessed by his library apostles, Dewey and Ranganathan.

Ok, that was a bit of enjoyable hyperbole, but for me, I really don’t see the reference desk is such a lofty position. Sorry folks, but while the desk is a good central point for people to come to for questions, I’m in the camp that believes the following things about the reference desk:

  1. It creates a unnecessary barrier to patron-staff interactions (some of these desks are not the most approachable);
  2. It creates a refuge for librarians who, rather than get up and walk around and see about helping patrons in the library, sit on their butts;
  3. It represents an older ideology in librarian thought regarding the passive role of the librarian out on the floor
  4. And it is a bunch of dead space that could be utilized for another set of chairs or table, sometimes in front of outdated reference material (not a great image boost there), and is sometimes aesthetically displeasing.

Now that I’ve dumped my opinion about this, what’s your take on the reference desk? Keep? Dispose? Or evolve into something else?

44 thoughts on “Reference Desk Reverence?

  1. All true… Also, I’m pretty sure I can teach monkeys to answer reference questions. There are literally hundreds of grad school projects that are how-to videos and articles on perfecting the reference interview. Anyone can do it if properly trained.

    I want my librarians out in the community talking to folks, teaching classes, developing the collections, creating new collections, training circ staff, out in the stacks answering questions, creating displays/marketing, tabling at community events, going to schools, making connections on social media, creating and running programs, attending city/school board meetings, mingling with the people of the town. I also want them working the desk sometimes. But only occasionally and only so that they can keep having a good feel for what is being asked for within the library.

    I would like to say, that this opinion is for public libraries and not universities. But if a deeper research (not just reference) question comes up like you would get in a university I’d like to be able to pull out my librarians to help. I just don’t want them waiting at a desk 8 hours a day, six days a week for those 1-2 deep research questions that come up in a week. I also don’t want them telling people where a book on a particular subject is and calling it a reference question.

    Sorry… Long comment. Maybe a blog post to come

    • Patrick, I think your comment also hits on something that is occurring in other workplaces: what constitutes a workplace? For some librarians, it is just as valuable to spend time at the library as it is out in the community. It’s been written about in the last two years (the library without walls) and it brings out the community aspect that people like to push without actually supporting it (“What, actually leave the library? The Devil you say!”)

      On the other hand, the beaucracy of public money and the litiginous nature of our society make it very hard to actually leave the building since there has to be an accounting of time and insurance against anything that could happen. Which is really terrible since I would like to step out of my library and meet people where they are at, whether it’s the moms walking home from school or the business owners who spend all their time at their establishment.

  2. It’s been discussed at a couple libraries I’ve been at if the reference desk is obsolete in the way that it used to function to the public. These discussions have been in public libraries, and the reference desk is something I see thriving more in the academic setting than the public. With the Internet embedded in everyone’s lives pretty firmly for a few years now, the reference desk pales in comparison to Google, Wikipedia and other functions that are available to everyone (at least in the minds of the patrons). I still regard the reference desk as position of some prestige, but I think that’s due more to me being stuck in the old way of thinking. The reference desk is turning into the information desk in a lot of places. Reference librarians are being asked more about the hours of the library and directions rather than being asked to research and find items on a specific topic. It’d be interesting if libraries (especially public) posted their stats on reference questions, and state only the statistics of questions that are considered true reference questions.

  3. Keep, it’s always good for people to know they have A Place to go when they have a question. Otherwise it’ll be like at a grocery store when you look around for a while to see if you spot anyone who looks like they work there. Plus who will answer all the phoned in Reference Questions if there is no desk?

    I don’t see why you can’t have one person at The Desk and have one Roving Librarian looking for people to help.

    I like how my public library does it. They have dedicated Non-MLIS people manning the Ref Desks full time supplemented by MLIS’s who have a mandated number of hours per week. Working Reference gives you an idea of what people don’t understand, can’t find for themselves or what is trending. Not to mention it’s a nice break of routine from whatever else you’ve been working on.

    • I agree on giving people one place to go to get their questions answered. Whether it is the reference desk or not is a different issue.

      Like many things in libraryland, it’s all about scale. Roving reference with a person at the desk would not work since my library is too small, but I can see it working at a medium to large library easily. I’m not immune to the criticism of logistics of such an arrangement, but I’d argue for more experimenting to gather more data to draw a better conclusion.

  4. I work a lot of hours at various community college reference desks, and I get a lot of true reference questions. Most of the ref questions I get involve introducing students to the library databases for research purposes. So, I still feel like reference desks provide an important service to the students and community. We also provide quite a bit of virtual reference.

    That said, I don’t care for the traditional, sitting-down kind of desks. They do provide a barrier to interaction. I think I would prefer a sort of podium that would allow me to stand and walk around easily so that I can help find books or help students at their stations more quickly.

    Finally, I would add that outreach to classrooms, faculty and the public are ultimately more important than the reference desk these days. Because many people prefer to research at home, we need to let them know what types of services we offer online. And this involves getting out of the library and talking to people about library services.

    • Reference desk design is an interesting topic to me. The first thing I do when I go into a library is look for the reference desk. Why? Because I want to see whether it is high (so someone could stand at the desk) or low (so someone could actually sit and be helped). Both heights have their own pros and cons so I find it interesting to see which one is there.

      I do like a desk where I can move next to a person rather than across. It’s simply psychology to make it where you appear to be working with the person rather than holding authority or in confrontation with them.

  5. As an undergraduate I was intimidated by the reference desk! It always seemed like I was an imposition and that I was distracting them from their real jobs (which was a mystery to me because I only ever saw them sitting on their ass). Even though my discipline was research-heavy I never sought the help of the reference desk in those four years! While LIS curriculum and professional training currently emphasizes patron service, my experience is a recurring reality. I agree with your post full-heartedly especially with #2! Seems like it would make the world of difference if reference librarians took a more pro-active role in their libraries and sought those who needed them rather than the older norm.

    • I’ve heard from college librarians about how they get asked questions the moment they leave the desk. Why? Because the desk was intimidating. Eye contact is a key. I try to greet people in the area, but my reference desk is not on the beaten path which makes it odd at times.

  6. Yes, keep. I like students having a place to go. It can be made approachable and we can make ourselves approachable, regardless of where we are. But do we have to sit there the whole time? No. I try to make it a practice of walking around to see what’s going on, if I can help. I get questions often when I do this.

    • I try to make rounds when I’m the reference desk. I can push in a chair and smile while greeting or offering help. ( I find that tidying up (pushing in chairs, straightening books, etc) makes it appear less confrontation and “why is this person spying on me?”.) It also works to keep track on things going on in different parts of the building and to make sure all our magazines and newspapers are present and accounted for.

  7. Evolution. There is no doubt at all that too often the desk is used as a bunker by librarians.

    I’ve worked in libraries both where we’ve had a bunker desk that you generally were not supposed to leave and libraries where we had strategically placed reference pods, stand up desks really only wide enough to hold a computer that did not have sides. It’s interesting to see how reference staff works and interacts with patrons given these different types of spaces. The pods encouraged more interaction, put the librarian on an equal level with the patron, and added the push to go with the person if they seemed to need it, instead of the vague wave or point across the library that too often passes as directions.

    I like getting out from behind the desk to help patrons but having a sort of home base (not the best terminology, I know) to return to is also helpful and it gives people a spot they know they can go to get help.

    I’ve done roving reference too but I think it more annoys patrons, who are used to pushy salespeople doing this, than it it welcomed. Making librarians available at a central point, or distributed landing places seems to make more sense to me, but making that place approachable and unintimidating is important.

    • Here’s a question: would a paging system be good? Or too much like retail?

      (Example: Patron needs help in the cook book aisle. They press a button that alerts staff. A staff member responds. And yes, I know there is the possibility of abuse.)

      • I don’t think a paging system would be a bad idea if it could be worked out so it wasn’t misused. Librarians are often ‘paged’ out of their offices if other help is unavailable, though currently it’s other staff who do so, no patrons.

        It might help with the intimidation of approaching a desk and/or standing in line to wait for help.

        • It would have to be a pro/con at the location. But I think it might help people in the stacks where they need it without having to seek out assistance.

  8. At my last public library gig, the main furniture/point of contact was the circ desk. Most questions were about books as objects (Where is this book? Can you order it for me?) and less about the contents. Let’s not forget questions #1 and 2: Where are the bathrooms? and Can I sign up for a computer? I’d say that this particular sea change starts with public libraries with a lot of interbranch/library lending and the architectural flexibility to try out an info desk.

    I wonder if you’d get more ref questions if they were wandering the stacks and making eye contact with those with “query faces”. A lanyard or other identifier would bring then to you. Or you could mandate red shirts and khaki pants like Target. Kidding, but I often accidentally dress like a Target employee on the day o go there, and get questions.

    • I wore a blue shirt of the correct hue to Best Buy once. I got questions, but when you’re a librarian, it’s hard to fight the urge to answer them.

      There is a lot to be said for an information desk. I wish we had one, but we dont get enough questions to mandate it.

      • If you’re in a small library (as I am), why can’t your main desk be your information desk too? Usually everyone knows where to “check out” — no reason why they can’t ask a question there and later on check out materials in the same place…
        We operate on more of a “personal librarian” model; the first person to greet you can answer your questions (whether research or where is the bathroom), recommend a book, help you use a database, or check whether you still have items checked out. It works for us, but we really are small.

  9. “A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world.”
    -John le Carre

    It’s important to be available to patrons. But it’s ideal to go where the patrons are- whether that’s in the stacks, out in the community, or in the virtual realms.

  10. I’m with the commenter who advocates having a librarian at a desk and a librarian roving. Google etc. are great but too often people don’t really know how to use the online resources that are out there- even the ones that they have to use for their own coursework. And too often patrons neglect to see what their library actually holds, because they figure if it’s not online it doesn’t exist. I used to work in ILL and at least 10%-15% of requests we would get for material people wanted to borrow, was actually housed in our library. Patrons just didn’t know how to use the catalog to find it. As far as creating a barrier and librarians sitting on their butts, I NEVER sat on my butt at a reference desk. There is always something to do. We are busy even when you think we are not. A lot more goes into running a library than you might think! And yes, if it’s slow, why not do that other work? Roving librarians are great if you develop a good way to approach people; most of the people in my former library just wanted to browse and didn’t like being disturbed by a “helpful” librarian.

    • I wouldn’t say that roving reference doesn’t have its downsides, but it is a pro/con equation that can only be answered at the local level.

  11. Some interesting thoughts on the reference desk. I see it as more of a necessary evil. It is essential to have a clear location for people to go to ask questions or get help. In a public library, I think it will always exist. I think those who design libraries should really keep patrons in mind when they design desks. For instance, the library where I work, the reference desk is entirely to big and it is hard to get up. You have to go around the desk. Smaller, less foreboding desks would definitely be a n improvement.

    • Nice! Sorry to hear about your reference desk. What feels odd about my reference desk is that it is completely open on one side which makes me feel strangely vulnerable. I think if it wasn’t a *fortress* on the other side, it would be less of an issue.

  12. When I worked at Princeton Public, the reference desk was a technology hub (much to the chagrin of some of the librarians, many of us regularly noted–tech questions are reference questions–but that is an entirely different post). I feel that a central place for folks to ask for help is important. At Mary Jacobs, the desk is a hub of activity–how to print, where to find XYZ, tons of Readers Advisory, and a great deal of chatting with regulars. However, I feel Librarians and other professionals working in libraries need to get up and move!

    Whenever I am walking to my lunch, folks on the floor ask me questions. If I am in the stacks doing a shelf-check, I get a question. If I am out in the community and forgot to take my badge off, I get questions. Clearly, on-the-spot reference and help are also needed. Shelvers are always answering direction questions. We need to put our skills out there and reap the benefits of it.

    I think and Ipad with 3G access at street fairs is one of the best ways to do this. When I first pitched this idea, it would have needed a laptop and an expensive Satellite Internet access. However, we have the technology, we can re-build reference from the Ipad out….

    It is perfect for interaction with the community while providing top-notch service. Best of all, this kind of thing would reach people who do NOT already use the library. Too many of our efforts to update what we do are only known to people already on-board with libraries. If the NJ budget situation has taught me anything, it is that we need to get non-library people talking about libraries. Interaction on the street is a great place to start (and I am all for getting outside and meeting new people…what a great shift to work!).

    • Oh, you know where I stand on the NJ library budget issue. It’s good to energize our own base to get them to contact people, but you really have to reach the people on the fence (those who don’t know what we have, those who thought they didnt have the time, etc).

      I love floor interaction, even when I’m trying to get somewhere else. It’s seren-reference-dipity! Ok, that’s a bit of a stretch, but you got what I mean.

  13. Oh, and the librarians who are not looking up, smiling, and offering to help BEFORE being asked–please retire. Your sitting around doing ‘real work’ while on desk is no longer needed. What is needed are professionals who do not make people feel like they are bothering us–smiles, nods, robust hello’s, and paying attention to the people on your floor (not just at the desk) are all important parts of communication….

    • Good points, but who decides what determines the ‘good’ or ‘right’ librarian? And in what type of library since, presumably, librarians will have to do different duties and go about them in a different manner depending on what type of institution they are working in. Amongst everyone in the profession, whether they be young or old, working in public or academic or an OPL or etc, what constitutes being the “perfect” librarian??

  14. The more I read these comments the more I think we don’t need MLIS holders holding down Reference at Public Libraries full time. Like Patrick said, you can train any monkey to smile and answer questions. The monkey can also wander around and help people as well. A few weeks of shadowing and any marginally intelligent person can learn what resources are available for the most common questions.

    You can’t have a Librarian holding down On Call hours to be summoned for those really tricky reference or research questions? The ones that come by twice a week?

    Librarians should be making guides and services that make their persistent expert presence at the Reference Desk unneeded. Librarians should spend SOME time at the Ref Desk, if only to gauge what people are asking for so they can create more intelligent guides and services.

  15. My rebuttals:

    >1. It creates a unnecessary barrier to patron-staff interactions (some of these desks are not the most approachable);

    I believe that our desk is definitely one of the “most approachable”, as witness the many people from all walks of life who approach it constantly throughout the day.

    >2. It creates a refuge for librarians who, rather than get up and walk around and see about helping patrons in the library, sit on their butts;

    If the traffic slows down enough for us to leave the reference desk and find patrons who need help, we often do. However, most days there is more than enough work — in the form of patrons asking for our help at the desk — to keep us sitting on our butts so that we can use the computers to help them, or to keep us jumping up to go help them at the computers or copiers where they are sitting, or to take them back into the stacks to help them find the materials they need.

    >3. It represents an older ideology in librarian thought regarding the passive role of the librarian out on the floor

    First, “Older” is not necessarily “worse.” Second, the author seems unaware that many libraries have begun to phase out or de-emphasize “roving reference” after finding that patrons didn’t actually prefer it. To judge by how many patrons come to the desk and ask for help, our patrons at my library seem to prefer being able to find us in a readily identifiable, reliable location.

    >4. And it is a bunch of dead space that could be utilized for another set of chairs or table, sometimes in front of outdated reference material (not a great image boost there), and is sometimes aesthetically displeasing.

    The reference material is only outdated because of inadequate funding.
    “Aesthetically displeasing” is in the eye of the beholder.
    And while I can’t speak for other libraries, our Reference department is so busy that to think of the reference desk as “dead space” is ludicrous.

  16. @Kristin: “Librarians should be making guides and services that make their persistent expert presence at the Reference Desk unneeded.”

    Many of our patrons barely know how to use a mouse (I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen them pick it up and point it at the screen like a remote control, or still try to click with the scroll wheel even after using the computers daily for months or years). No matter how “intelligent” we make our guides and services, our expert presence will still be direly needed by such patrons.

  17. @greaterumbrage: “I’ve done roving reference too but I think it more annoys patrons, who are used to pushy salespeople doing this, than it it welcomed.”

    Hear, hear. As a patron and a customer, I find it immensely annoying to be approached unsolicited. If I want help, I will ask for it. I do realize that not everyone feels this way, but the people pushing for all reference to be proactive don’t seem to believe that anyone does feel this way — much less that there are many people who do.

    • Doug, it does cut both ways. There are people who grab me when I go by in the stacks even though they’ve come by the reference desk twice. I find that the approach that works is just a simple greeting works to gauge whether someone needs help or not. That way, I can be friendly without coming across as being nosy or annoying or setting off that “annoying salesman” reaction.

  18. Thanks for starting this discussion. It’s been interesting reading through all the comments. Right now, at mpow, we definitely try to balance a number of different service models, including answering questions at the reference desk (low, on the small side, allows ppl to sit/stand beside us), 1-on-1 appointments, roving (our iPad has been the perfect tool for this), and getting out in the community (speaking for orgs in the area, attending community events). I think the key is to be open-minded and flexible.

    • Rich, your reply sounds like one of the most sensible evolutions of the reference desk. It’s a base, it’s a place for people to go to, but it’s also in transition and something that can be taken elsewhere. Not a bad idea at all.

  19. I definitely vote for keeping the reference desk, both because our patrons want to know where they can find us and because salespeople who approach me in stores asking me if I need help really annoy me. “Roving reference” might work in a building where several librarians are working in tandem, but at my branch there’s usually only one person covering each floor every hour. Most of the time when I step away from the reference desk for a few minutes because I’m bringing a patron to the shelves or because I’m weeding/shelving/etc., by the time I get back to the desk there’s someone waiting impatiently for me to return.

    In our adult room we have a desk with high chairs, so we can either sit or stand while we work. In our children’s room our chairs are lower, which puts us at the level of our younger and shorter patrons. Oh, and at either of those desks patrons can approach us from the front, from the side, or from behind (which gets REALLY annoying!)

    • Yeah, my desk is in a spot where people can approach me from behind. It doesn’t happen often, but it certainly makes me turn and look to see if they need help.

      What about a paging system? Would you consider that? Or is your library busy enough that paging is impractical since there is *always* someone to help at any given point in time?

      And since you vote to keep it, what would you do to improve it?

  20. The closest I’ve ever come to a paging system was when I worked in a library where they had a bell at the circulation desk where they kept the phone. If a clerk answered the phone and the caller needed to speak to a librarian, the clerk would ring the bell and that would summon us from wherever we were in the building. I wasn’t fond of this system, but I’m not sure if that’s because it made me feel more like a waitress or more like a pavlovian dog.

    Paging in my current branch wouldn’t work because, as you say, there is always someone who needs help. The librarian at the adult information desk is often the only one in the building. In the children’s room we have signs that we put up several times a day explaining that there is no staff on that floor and to ask for help in the adult room. But sometimes the patrons don’t feel like taking the stairs or the elevator, so they just start yelling until someone comes to help them. So I suppose that’s one kind of paging system we have in effect.

    I would improve our reference desk by giving us access to our old catalog system again. Ever since we switched from Dynix to Millennium, we spend an inordinate amount of time staring at the hourglass on the screen. Sometimes the patrons stare at it with us, and sometimes they wander off for a while or even leave the building. And the more popular the book is, the longer it takes. I recently spent about 20 minutes reserving the books in the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy for a patron. By the time I reserved the last book, the patron was already out the door and on her way home. There is no way that we can be productive under those circumstances.

  21. This “library immortal,” lol, kind of likes the reference desk. It gives people a fixed point at which to get help. I don’t mind answering routine questions, in part because they make me someone they know, and may feel more comfortable approaching with more “substantial” questions. It is also the case in my experience that what seem like trivial questions can turn out to be anything but.

    Dare I say that there seems a certain amount of insecurity and snobbery in the anti-ref desk movement? Like we will be more respectable somehow if we are out and about, doing big important things, and not telling some guy where the potty is?

    The one argument I thought in the past made some sense, i.e. that when at the ref desk one missed out on doing other, (more important?) work seems to not hold water so much in an age where I can access my desktop remotely, check email etc, all from the forbidding confines of my reference desk 😉

    What the heck is more important anyway than being out on the floor, freely available, as needed, on demand? It’s the ultimate in “just in time” service!

  22. You write that librarians are sitting on their butts as though they were doing nothing at all while sitting. Also, your post implies that reference librarians do reference and nothing else. Where I work I do a lot of work on my butt, like design and implement curricula, or process reference statistics, or work on research projects for faculty and admins. Reference is just one part of the job description.

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