Staplers, Jammed Printers, and Bathrooms: Why I Want to Burn the Reference Desk

When I was an embedded librarian back in 2003, before being embedded was cool, I began to loathe my reference desk shifts. Why? Because I was freaking busy doing a lot of other things that I thought were of more value. (I even spoke value before it was cool.) I was teaching, figuring out how to collaborate more with faculty, doing collection development, and working with a stream of students who would come to my office. I was being an academic librarian. I fought tooth and nail with my boss (who had written a book on how important Reference was, so he wasn’t feeling it). Eventually, when my instruction schedule made me too busy (and my colleagues) to literally be available most days, we had a talk and at least eliminated evenings and weekends…and we hired student workers.

Student workers on the reference desk? OH MY GOD, BUT THEY DO NOT KNOW ALL OF THINGS! No, and they didn’t get asked all of the things either. So, what happened was we spent time putting together a back-up emergency call plan and low and behold none of us ever received a call from the desk. Eventually, we moved to a reference assistant  (para-professional) and student workers and no one died.

So, when I got to my new job, I was SHOCKED to learn that not only were we staffing the reference desk….we were DOUBLE staffing the reference desk. I did a double take. OK, so clearly maybe we have a lot of questions, right? Wrong. I looked at the stats. Then, what I did, was I started having the librarians write down every single question at that desk. BEFORE you die at the idea of doing this because you are so busy at the desk, their maximum was maybe four questions. It got handled just fine.

You can see where this is going. I did the analysis and then I said to the Head of Reference….we are single staffing and as of spring, you staff with your own librarians (all of the librarians were sitting and sitting). He was shocked. He claimed that our students at our small college deserve the QUALITY of having a professional academic degreed librarian answer their questions.

I did the math.

Our students are paying about 18.00/question. SHOULD WE ASK THEM IF THAT IS WORTH IT?

Would you pay $18.00 to have someone hand you the stapler?

Also, if it is good enough for several other very excellent, small college libraries to have well-trained students work at the desk, it is good enough for us.

Now, I currently still have librarians on the reference desk and they sit there and sit there. I can’t drastically change *everything* all at once here but I would like to go a step further and completely pull the desk *out* of there. The idea that we have librarians sitting at a desk next to a collection of totally underutilized print volumes of reference books is INSANE.

To me it has become a symbol of everything wrong with libraries and where mine stopped innovating, in 1995.

I would like to go back and look at the two semesters of data I have and code the reference questions with an L, for Librarian needed to be answered properly or S, student could answer. I am betting I would have less than 25% of the questions needing to be answered by librarians.

I would note that my current institution has a much weaker instruction program than my former. BUT, all things considered, even when I bring new librarians in, it won’t be to sit at a desk. (Plus we are changing and building for the future.)

When you go to a bank to get a CD or talk about getting a mortgage, do you go to the teller? No, you sort of get triaged, right? Like at the doctor’s office. (These examples were provided to me by a mentor and I love her.)

If my assumptions are true about the statistics, I want to get rid of the desk. Entirely.

If my librarians want to be available, they can do so from their offices..or they can share the IT help desk near the computers. Wouldn’t that make more sense? They like the visibility of being the first thing people see when they walk in the door.

And sitting. I don’t devalue reference, but I also don’t value that static desk space.

Why are we anchored to an old ideal like reference? Do you think most students know what that even means? And why does it then have to occur at a big, gigantic desk in the middle of prime space where I could, frankly, put a coffee cart. Makerspace.

8 thoughts on “Staplers, Jammed Printers, and Bathrooms: Why I Want to Burn the Reference Desk

  1. Still in school, here, no professional library experience, so my comments are based on the fantasy in my head rather than being grounded in reality. I say this up front because there is a strong possibility that what sounds reasonable in my head is actually completely ridiculous in the read world.

    In my fantasy world, the librarians are at the reference desk (want to double staff? have one librarian/academic and one student) for two reasons: 1. there really is a value-add to having a professional at the reference desk, even if not needed for *every* question. And 2. (this is the high potential for ridiculousness point) the librarian/academic can be doing research of her own while not answering questions. Obviously there has to be some visual cue that screams “INTERRUPT ME IF YOU HAVE A QUESTION! I’M HERE TO BE INTERRUPTED!!” but the librarian could be a role model for students in the library, and the questions asked might even inspire further research ideas.

    This said, I’m totally impressed by your I’ll-show-you-the-numbers approach.

    1. Hey! Thanks for the thoughts…your perfect world is a good one. ;) I hope when you are out there someday, you will find me and write me and let me know what you think after.

      I don’t disagree that they work in some places and there is value in the service, just not in the space (for me).

  2. We cut our reference desk for exactly those reasons – now it’s a group of computers used for quick printing. Nobody died. Most of our questions are answered by staff and students at the “single service point” (aka circulation). It works pretty ok. Rarely are there questions that really need an expert, because most of those students have already contacted their librarian directly via email or in person. I get a chunk of the weird ones just because I work with gov docs and maps, but even that’s pretty rare. I miss interacting with students at the desk, but I also recognize that my time is better spent with collection development, instruction, and scholarly communications outreach than it is smiling benevolently at every person who comes in the door.

  3. Dear Madam – your egregious use of the comma has insulted my better judgement and I will no longer be returning to this establishment.

    (ok, you know there is no keeping me away)

    You’d be surprised, even in IT, on just how people are set in their ways – it was done this way when I was hired, so it must be done this way for forever.

    (side note, Duffy is, by title, a reference librarian, but that, mostly, includes developing strategy for and training patrons in the use of electronic readers for eBooks)

  4. Our small college library consists of just two librarians, our all-purpose reference/circ/tech services/anythingelse desk is something every single student has to walk past to get to the rest of the library, and we still get tons of ‘pass the stapler’ type questions. I love our location though, because it gives us an opportunity to personally greet people as they come in, which sometimes opens the door to deeper questions they may not have asked if we hadn’t engaged them.

    1. That sounds great! I am a firm believer in whatever works for each place. And I love the one service desk model, really :) Thanks for writing.

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