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.