When I was just a wee one, librarians already were asking a sacrilegious question:
- Does the reference desk define us?
Barbara Ford presented a paper at ACRL in 1986 titled “Reference Beyond (and without) the Reference Desk.” And Gabriela Sonntag and Felicia Palsson updated Ford’s ideas in 2007, with “No Longer the Sacred Cow — No Longer a Desk: Transforming Reference Service to Meet 21st Century User Needs.”
The University of California, Merced (UCM) has an academic library with no reference desk. It never had one, and according to a recent Reference Librarian article, “Desk Bound No More,” has no plans to install one. Instead, UCM is focusing on asynchronous service, communicating via email or text, sometimes from thousands of miles away from the physical library.
I spent a slow night on the reference desk reading whatever articles I could come across on reference desks or reference services in libraries, and, as a profession, we’re all over the place on what place the desk holds in our collective heart. Some see it as a marketing tool and a sacred symbol of the profession; the first thing a patron sees is a smiling, helpful librarian. Others see it as an anachronism; dwindling statistics uncover the uselessness of paying a professional to tell someone where the bathroom is located. There doesn’t seem to be much wiggle room between these two interpretations.
But, others are beginning to treat the reference desk as ‘home base.’ The desk is important, but its function is evolving right in step with ours. Roving reference is intriguing: wandering through the stacks, with a wireless tablet in hand, and helping patrons that are tethered to study spaces by laptops and heavy textbooks. Wearing walkie-talkies is another option along that same line. And then there is the ‘on call’ model; triaging requests and contacting an ‘on call’ librarian. And the now-ubiquitous use of instant messenger librarian, with text-a-librarian around the corner. And, some are approaching the issue of dwindling statistics with design: reinventing what the desk looks like, and how it feels to interact with it. What about a standing research station with dual monitor set-up so the patron can stand comfortably next to you, and watch the steps taken toward an answer? (And this would make it easier for the patron to ‘drive’ at the desk, reinforcing learning-by-doing.)
As a new librarian taking stock of her environment and tools, it is this last position that resonates. The physical desk no longer is the only point of entry to patron services, but is one of many. The desk does not define the services I provide to patrons online, in my office, in the stacks, or in the reading rooms.
Just a thought experiment for now, as the reference desk’s usefulness persists, but what can we build for our patrons out of sci-fi dreams and a librarian’s practicality? Detaching function from the physical space, do solutions for future problems surface? (For example, in the course of my career, is it farfetched that the physical desk will be replaced by interactive service points throughout the library?)