As I sit here at the Reference Desk on a Saturday afternoon (a rare event as we only have a few weekend shifts and all the reference staff take turns) I am thinking about some of the reference interviews/interactions/questions I have had so far this semester. Most of the questions I have gotten have been very easy to answer:
- Where is room ______?
- Where is the restroom?
- My article didn’t print out, can you help me?
- The printer is out of paper, can you put more in?
- The printer is jammed, can you help?
- Do I check this book out with you?
- Do you have this book _______?
- I have a call number, but where can I find this book?
- Do you have a stapler?
- Can I borrow a pen?
- I am having trouble accessing my class Moodle page, can you help me? (For those of you who don’t know, Moodle is our course management system.)
- I’m a guest here, how can I print something out?
I have had no problems answering these questions. And why should I? I have been working in the same library for many years now, and for several more in libraries in general, and I have worked plenty of other jobs in the past that required me to answer a steady stream of questions. But the more I get these questions I wonder if it is really useful for me to be there to answer these questions. Would the library be better served if a library staff member be at the Reference Desk for those questions and have them refer patrons to an ‘on call’ librarian when they have a ‘reference/research’ type question? I know other libraries have adopted such service models in the past, and some libraries use this model now. I don’t have a strong opinion on which is, or might be, better. But my guess is that many non-librarian staff members are also perfectly capable of answering the majority of questions that come across the Reference Desk these days, even the reference/research questions.
And then . . . the occasional challenging question comes across the desk while I am sitting there. Part of me says: ‘Yes! I am needed here. My training and experience are why they want me, one of the librarians, to sit here and wait patiently for patrons to come and ask their research questions.’ But then, once the question is asked, I pause, I wonder how one of my colleagues would answer this question, I wonder if I really am the best person to answer the question. Doesn’t someone else know more about the databases and resources than I do? Would ‘B’ or ‘D’ librarian be better with this question?
One question I had this semester was about checking out the music scores and it quickly morphed into the student asking about finding a particular score we did not own. So I directed this student to WorldCat to identify the item and show him how to submit an interlibrary loan request. While he was signing up for an interlibrary loan account, one of my colleagues asked me if the score was in a database we subscribe to, Classical Scores Library. It turns out it was there. So, I quickly shifted gears and showed the patron how to get to the score and thanked my colleague for the help, even though I didn’t ask for help. In reality, I thought it was a question I could easily handle, not challenging at all. But I forgot about that database. What other resources have I missed in other reference interviews? How have my colleagues fared with similar questions? I really don’t know.
Another question I had, challenging in different ways than the one about music scores, makes me think some of my colleagues would have handled it much differently, but then again maybe not. The patron asked me to help her find peer reviewed resources on a particular event in history. Ok, I was able to do that just fine. But upon conversing with the patron further I learned that she really wanted resources on other historical events that were influenced by the first one she mentioned. Ok, eventually I was able to find a few things, but this was in the midst of attempting to politely discourage the patron’s desire to search hastily constructed phrases rather than keywords and trying to be supportive when her search phrases would come up with nothing or nothing relevant. Then, in addition to all this, I discover what this patron is really trying to do is find any information on a topic because she was scheduled to do a presentation on a book in a week and her faculty member was supposed to get her a copy through interlibrary loan but it had not yet arrived. So she was just trying to find something, anything, similar to the book’s content, but what she really needed was the book that she was expected to present on. So, yes, I helped her find some things which she seemed satisfied with and she said she would speak to her faculty member later that day about the book she needed. Whew!
These reference questions are prompting me to ask myself other questions. Am I answering these questions the best possible way? Maybe, maybe not. But I am certainly trying to give the best possible answer I know. The majority of my work is in running our interlibrary loan office. I do not interface with faculty and students to the extent that some of my colleagues do. Then again, their basic job responsibilities are different. I run the interlibrary loan office, yes, but I also do some reference, some instruction, some collection development, but not to the extent that some of my colleagues who are reference and instruction librarians do. I don’t teach as often, I don’t create and manage as many LibGuides, I don’t collect resources in as many subject areas. As a result I simply don’t field as many questions on a day to day basis, and so my knowledge of our resources, comparatively, is not as broad or as extensive. Does all of this make me a less qualified reference librarian because I’m out of practice? Someone may argue yes, and what is someone like me doing at the reference desk? Part of me is inclined to agree.
However, I then think about the title of this post. What are we really doing at the Reference Desk? Ok, so maybe I am a bit short on my resource knowledge. That can easily be rectified. Although I would also say, in defense of all 21st century reference librarians faced with the same challenges, that it is a big challenge, with the hundreds of electronic resources libraries subscribe to, to have detailed knowledge and experience with every single resource. (Yet, maybe this is not a 21st century challenge?) But what is the point of the Reference Desk? Or any desk in the library for that matter? And why is it important for me, in my position as a resource sharing librarian in a small academic library to take shifts at our reference desk?
What are we doing at the Reference Desk? Well, there are the practical/fundamental reasons that we need someone to be there to answer questions. Someone needs to be there to help people get the printer unjammed, to answer the phone we have placed at the desk and posted the number on our website, direct them to a room or where to find a particular book. Someone has to be there to help. But there is something more to having librarians and experienced staff members at the reference desk. Whether we run interlibrary loan, staff other service desks, teach, manage all the electronic resources, etc., we all have a deep understanding of our library and our institution. We understand how to navigate our building, we understand why certain things work the way they do and know how to help patrons navigate their quirks. Despite our sometimes superficial knowledge of a resource’s content, we are very good at navigating database interfaces (we can drill down into them faster and get more results more efficiently than the average user). We know and understand how different library departments work, why they work that way, and how they relate to the other departments in the library. We know that when patrons ask us questions they need us and they are relying on us to do our best to help them, we understand the value and benefits of providing them with good service. It is all this knowledge, combined with our subject knowledge, our years of experience, our ability to think on our feet, be flexible, and, when it is necessary, to be a bit more empathetic or take some extra time with a patron’s query that makes our presence at the Reference Desk more meaningful. This all contributes to the good and valuable experiences our patrons have when they ask us questions. Yes, they may only be asking where the water fountain is this time, but every good experience means they will come back with a question about unjamming a printer, another about reserving a room in the library, another about using a database, another about using interlibrary loan, another about finding resources for a paper they are doing on child slavery in India in the nineteenth century, and another about where to start their research for their senior project. Having the librarians available for any and all of these questions helps build and develop relationships with these patrons. They trust us to answer their questions, to answer them well and to be there when they have more to ask, whenever that may be.
So what are we really doing at the Reference Desk? Building, developing and maintaining relationships with our patrons. We are giving them confidence and assurance that they can trust us to be there when we are needed. All of this takes time. New relationships are forming and developing all the time, thus making our presence necessary on a regular basis. And yet, we all cannot be at the desk all the time, so we take turns and make it a collective, and collaborative, effort. The value that each of us brings to the Reference Desk is slightly different because of the areas we are responsible for or have knowledge in. The result is that as a group we bring more knowledge to the desk than any one individual would. We are offering our patrons value in their information seeking experiences. They may not know that it is there (Does that really matter?), how that value developed, or where it comes from, but it is there. We offer up that value regardless of the need and work to ensure that, ultimately, our patrons possess more knowledge about how to find and use information and come back to us when they have another need. And if we don’t know something, we ask each other. Or, as my colleague did, offer up a suggestion. Because ultimately, it is what is best for the patron’s information need.
So, yes, I can work on my database/resource knowledge, but we all, including myself, bring a lot to the Reference Desk. That is why we are there, to continue to offer up that knowledge and build on those relationships and maintain the support we offer our patrons.
I’m sure there is more that my colleagues, where ever they work, can add to this. But my point is that we all have value to offer in our service, in our presence at the Reference Desk. And for me, this was, at this point in my career, a great exercise to engage in. Do you have anything to add? What are you really doing at the Reference Desk?