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TL v60n4: Guest Commentary
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Tennessee Libraries

Volume 60 Number 4



Guest Commentary

 Where, Oh Where Has the Reference Desk Gone?


Kathy Campbell
Head of Reference
, Sherrod Library
East Tennessee State University


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 We all know what will happen in 2012—stimulus money will run out and libraries will be facing a brave new world of reduced funding.  It will be a time to develop creative (and cheaper) ways to provide traditional services.  I’ve spent the last few months trying to figure out how we can most effectively provide reference service to our faculty and students.  The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of retiring the reference desk and putting it in storage with our buns and “shooshers.”

The role of the reference librarian has changed over the years.  Traditionally, reference librarians served as the key to unlock the intricacies of the print reference collection.  They guided students to the perfect reference sources for their papers, explained how to use these resources, and generally proved themselves to be indispensible to any serious researcher.  Since the advent of the Internet, however, print collections are underutilized, and many students feel that they no longer need to come into the physical library since they can find whatever information they require online.  Our annual statistics show that the majority of our questions are short (directional) rather than research-oriented.   The reality is that I spend most of my desk time answering directional questions (where’s the bathroom, where do I pick up my printing job, how do I log on to a computer, where’s tutoring, etc.) or transferring phone calls.  Hence, reference librarians are spending more of their time on the reference desk being receptionists/switchboard operators and less time being reference librarians.   It seems like an awful waste of money to have library faculty perform a function that could easily be handled by student workers. Wouldn’t it be better to change the name of the desk from reference to information? Staff it with student workers or graduate assistants who could serve as receptionists, answer short questions, and introduce students to our online catalog and databases;  and  free librarians to perform other duties.

So what will reference librarians do now that they are free from desk duty?  Why, provide reference service, of course.  Librarians would be on call as back up to the person at the information desk for difficult or complicated questions.  They would make appointments to meet with faculty and/or students to help them with individual projects and would be free to teach more library instruction classes.   What I see as the most valuable consequence of no longer assigning librarians to staff the reference desk is that they would have more time to explore new ways to connect to online students, a group that has been underserved at my library.  By having adequate time to create library tutorials, class specific LibGuides, and to embed in the online classes, reference librarians can once again become an indispensible part of the research process.

Reference service has been and always will be one of the core services that a library provides to its constituency.  How we provide that service will change as technology provides new ways for people to connect to information sources and to us. 

In conclusion, the time has come to acknowledge that it is no longer cost effective to have librarians sit at a desk in the reference department, and thus, libraries should end this archaic practice.

Share your comments about Kathy's ideas on the thread on the TLA Forum site

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