Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Shape of the Reference Desk, a Panel Discussion

So much is changing at libraries, and the reference desk is part of the evolution to more client friendly service. Libraries are ripping out old desks to replace them with designer service stations to help staff help their clients. Thinking it was a good time to assess the change and spot some trends, 43 librarians attended our July 9 The Shape of the Reference Desk program, sponsored by the Adult Reference Librarians Network and held at the Thomas Ford Memorial Library.

Our three panelists - Blaise Dierks of the River Forest Public Library, Nancy Kim Phillips of the Arlington Heights Public Library, and Nicole Wilhelms of the Downers Grove Public Library - have all participated in the redesign of their libraries' desks. Coming from three different communities, each showed and explained how their new desks are designed to improve their public services. I added a brief report on our local survey of librarians' thoughts about their reference desks. (See the pie chart summary by clicking here. There is also a link to all the individual comments.)

Reference desk trends that I noticed from the presentation:

  • Many new desks are removing the barriers between the librarian and the client. A new goal is to get the two side by side for the interview. This might be both standing or both sitting, and often a computer is involved. Having librarian and client side by side can let the librarian bring the client into the search. The client might notice something the librarian has not and redirect the request. The client might also learn self-help skills as a by-product. 
  • New reference desks are getting closer to where clients enter the building and closer to the checkout desks. Having reference desks in the back in no longer ideal. Clients will ask other staff before ever getting back to a remote reference desk. 
  • Reference desks are getting smaller. 
  • Several reference managers vowed to get clutter off of their reference desks, to make them more inviting and not give the impression that the librarians are too busy to help. It was noted that sometimes too many signs and handouts around a desk seem to suggest "Do it yourself" when what a librarian really wants is to offer assistance. 
  • Reference departments, especially those with call centers, are taking some tasks more usually performed by circulation clerks or receptionists. Reference and readers' advisory departments are merging. Libraries are reorganizing to have fewer departments. 
  • Reference desks go by many names, including Information, Questions, Answers, Ask Us, and many variations including the word "service." A slight majority are still known as Reference according to our survey.

There was much interest in the public service point at the Arlington Heights Public Library, which Nancy Kim Phillips said is hard to call a desk. Librarians stand in the area of the structure to offer help and bring clients to open positions on the counter if necessary. Staff rove and use tablets in many of the reference interviews. One of the Arlington Heights librarians said that she has gotten in healthier shape working the reference shifts of her library. When off the floor, the librarian may be working the call center.

What I did NOT hear at this program was the idea that reference librarians should be pulled from public service desks because their time is too valuable to be assigned walk-up clients with easy questions. I heard this expressed by a manager of a small college library at the ALA Conference in Chicago in 2013. This group still seemed to be committed to reference librarians being on the front lines.

The Adult Reference Librarians Network's next meeting will be held on October 8 at the Indian Prairie Public Library.

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