Who should do reference?

The first topic of discussion at the ALA Heads of Public Services Discussion Group at the Midwinter conference was: “how many of you have eliminated librarians . . . at the reference desk?” While no one admitted to completely eliminating librarians at the reference desk, there is a definite trend towards using paraprofessionals and/or students to handle front-line reference. Lots of folks talked about this as a resource decision, in the sense that with tighter budgets and leaner staffs, we need to free up librarians (and their salaries) for “higher level” work. No one actually said that we shouldn’t be wasting librarians’ time sitting behind a desk and telling kids where the bathroom is; but that felt like the unspoken sentiment of many in the room.

Later, at dinner with Frye friends, we talked about our experiences with subject librarians who are intimidated at the thought of doing general reference. We all had examples of librarians who are uncomfortable on the reference desk because they think they are not qualified to answer questions outside their areas of expertise.
So which is it? Is reference so easy that we shouldn’t be wasting librarian time on it; or is it so hard that we even our subject librarians don’t feel qualified?
Of course, if our own subject specialists lack confidence in helping students with unfamiliar areas, that may say more about our own organizations than about reference. It seems to me that a subject librarian ought to be able to navigate a decently organized library website well enough to help most patrons find the resources they need in any subject area. If our own librarians are too intimidated to venture outside their area of expertise, imagine how daunting the task must feel for our patrons.

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6 Responses to “Who should do reference?”


  1. 1 Merrilee January 19, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    Chris, this is a version of a question I’ve been asking over the last year, which is “What have you stopped doing?” The answer to this is apparently “examine the tops of your shoes” because aside from “professional travel,” I don’t get much of an answer.

    I conclude we’re afraid to let go of the old in favor of the new. Instead, we try to do it all, which must mean we’re doing something badly (because there are fewer people to do the work). Or, we’re not being honest about what we’ve stopped. Or what we should stop.

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    • 2 Chris January 19, 2010 at 5:26 pm

      One of the interesting things about the ALA conversation was that several folks said they wanted to take librarians off the reference desk to free them up to do “innovative things”, but no one really knew what those innovative things should be. I’m beginning to think it is fashionable to denigrate reference right now; which I think is a mistake. Navigating the information environment is harder than ever now, and librarians should be stepping up to help teach the skills needed to make sense of it all.

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      • 3 Merrilee January 20, 2010 at 12:01 pm

        Well, maybe one of those “innovative things” should be imagining what research support services (as outlined in the manifesto) look like in the future and what training librarians are going to need to carry out those functions. Aren’t those services likely to be supported by what is now public services?

        I am not aiming for a denigration of any current functions, but rather an honest assessment of what we are doing and balance that with what we should be doing.

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      • 4 Chris January 20, 2010 at 8:38 pm

        Agreed on all counts! Thanks

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  2. 5 james January 18, 2010 at 1:42 pm

    Great points. you going to put more subject specialists on the reference desk? I think reference CAN be difficult, but it’s also very satisfying and a great way to learn first hand about readers’ needs and how well/badly the library is meeting those needs.

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    • 6 Chris January 18, 2010 at 2:49 pm

      I’m certainly inclined to encourage more subject specialists at the desk… I have come to the opinion that it is good for all involved, even if only for an hour or two a week.

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