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.