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 And it is a bunch of dead space that could be utilized for another set of chairs or table, sometimes in front of outdated reference material (not a great image boost there), and is sometimes aesthetically displeasing.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

September Blog Banner

I made a new one tonight since I’m somewhat overdue for one. I know it is Library Card sign up month and Banned Book Week is at the end of it, but when I read this entry from the.effing.librarian, that quote stuck out for me. I plucked it out of a larger passage, so some context may help. However, I think I managed to save the meaning of it in the illustration.

As someone with a biology background, the notion that evolution doesn’t mean trial and error, risk, or loss is absurd. When it comes to the librarian profession, it is without a doubt something that is going to occur. But from the flaws and failures of others, I believe a hardier librarian will emerge.

What that really means I can’t say for sure. But I’m excited to find out.

The Master’s Degree Misperception, Ctd.

Based on some of the reaction that I have received, I think I should try to provide a better example as to the point I’m trying to make. The easiest way for me to illustrate a point is with a metaphor, so bear with me.

Imagine libraries as being like the Army. Some people (paraprofessionals) enlist in the army while others (librarians) go to West Point or Officer Candidate school. Each group is taught the same set of skill basics that are needed to carry out the core mission of the Army. Once they have graduated from their programs, they are arranged into military units in which officers and enlisted operate in the same field space. Though they are seen side by side and can perform some of the same operations, they have different backgrounds and training.

In my perspective, what is happening in libraryland would be the equivalent of the constant comingling of the duties of the officers and enlisted. For librarians like myself, it arises to the question “Why did I get an MLS for this?” (or, to continue the Army metaphor, “Why did I go to officer training when I just could have enlisted?”) It’s not a matter as to whether or not the duties or skills of the paraprofessional are valuable or not; it’s a matter of the investment of time and resources by a librarian to allow them to step into higher library organizational functions. I don’t think I’m alone (and judging from some of the notes I have received, I’m not) in being someone who believes that because I spent the time, energy, and money in getting the advanced degree that my duties within the library should reflect that.

One might easily point out that there are no guarantees in this life; that the degree does not confer a magical ascent up on the library hierarchy to where a person “believes” they should be. But I don’t think it’s an unreasonable, pompous, or elitist presumption to believe in. And why not? If I was training for long distance running for the Olympics, I would think a high school track meet is beyond my level of training. It’s not because the high school track meet is terrible or unworthy of my attention, but because my training is not on the same level.   

Yes, there are paraprofessionals who can (and have) stepped into these roles and done well; that aspect is beside my point. I’m sure each librarian of this post can point to the positive and negative aspects of their paraprofessional and support staff (and likewise with paraprofessionals thinking of librarians). This might strike some as a startling revelation, but there are a broad numbers of situations out there in libraryland. Not every staffing is going to be the same, nor the duties or levels of competence of any of those staff members.

But, to put this gently, this isn’t about the paraprofessional. This post is about the librarian. If you want to invoke the saying, “Shit rolls downhill”, then you’re right. What is discussed here and in the previous post has broader staff implications. I leave that for the other excellent paraprofessional blogs out there to discuss. But, for my blog, that’s the topic du jour.

The Master’s Degree Misperception

“I didn’t know you needed a master’s degree to be a librarian.”

If you haven’t experienced this statement firsthand, you’ve certainly read about it. It is the notion that what we are doing as a career, a calling, and an occupation requires an advanced degree of study. It’s an image issue that pops up for the public librarian on a fairly regular basis. And, like it or not, it is here to stick with public librarians for a long time.

Once upon a time, there was no degree requirement to become a librarian. Anyone with a degree could be a librarian; it was simply a matter of learning the collection, the classification system, and the established policies and procedures of the library. With the advent of the MLS and MLIS programs, this has created a new layer of requirements for budding librarians but has not been accompanied by a shift in duties and workload. On any given day, I can be standing at the circulation desk side-by-side with a support staff member doing the same thing that they are doing. So long as this arrangement exists, the perception that librarianship does not require an advanced degree will continue to taint the image of the profession.

(Two things to note before I continue: first, that this is certainly not the full limit or extent of my job duties. If there is a line of people waiting to check out, I’ll step out and lend a hand. It’s good business, it’s a good show of support for my fellow staff member, and it’s a nice reminder about that aspect of the library experience. Budget tightening measures have also reduced our staffing numbers so that there isn’t another staff member around or on the desk to help out. Second, I don’t think there is anything wrong with a librarian doing these tasks. However, I’d like to imagine that I got an advanced degree so that checking out books would be a once in a while thing, not a regular gig.)

It is a disservice to the education, to the degree, and to the profession when the bulk of a librarian’s daily tasks could be performed by someone with a GED. It does not take a master’s degree to place a hold on a book, clear a copier, push in chairs, tell people they are being loud, shelve items, or other similar tasks. When librarians are seen doing this and then told there is an advanced degree requirement, there is a reasoning dissonance that occurs in the outside observer.

Our professional focus should be on the management and organization of materials; these are the things for which we are schooled and trained to do. So, this leads me to a question: how can we separate the MLS from the paraprofessional? Should the profession insist on a greater separation of duties? Should we surrender the reference desk over to the paraprofessional and adopt “research hours” where we can sit down with people who have actual reference questions? What needs to change in how we approach the job in the context of the library?


Author’s note: I’m not ignorant of the fact that this post will not apply to some libraries that have a smaller staff; nor that there will be times when there is a crossover of duties between librarians and paraprofessionals. I’m simply saying that this will continue to be an image problem so long as it is found in the majority of public libraries around the country.