Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Are Reference Desks Dying Out?

Chronicle of Higher Education | April 20, 2007
Section: Information Technology
Volume 53, Issue 33, Page A37

Are Reference Desks Dying Out?
Librarians struggle to redefine — and in some cases eliminate — the venerable institution


At the University of California at Merced's library, there is no reference desk and there never has been. The way reference services are delivered there would intrigue some and disturb others.

Consider this example: On a recent weekend, a student asked Michelle Jacobs, one of Merced's librarians, how to get journal articles about child obesity for a political-science paper. Ms. Jacobs gave the student the information he wanted right away. For any reference librarian, this is business as usual — except that the student asked his reference question through a text message.

And Ms. Jacobs answered the question from her cellphone.
And when Ms. Jacobs answered the question, she was at a library conference in Baltimore, almost 3,000 miles from Merced. In fact, Ms. Jacobs regularly answers reference questions from her phone — she handled three that weekend in Baltimore.

It's all in a day's work for Ms. Jacobs. She fields questions through e-mail and instant messaging, and she has even reached out to students through Facebook, where she has her own page. She sat at the reference desk at other colleges before coming to Merced. She doesn't miss it.
"The big trend is using social-networking tools to move beyond the reference desk," he says. "By putting ourselves in blogs and social networks, it opens up a door" to patrons.

High-tech tools could also change the way reference librarians interact with people in their own buildings. At Santa Rosa Junior College, in California, librarians are using wireless paging devices, which can transmit voice communications from pager to pager and also receive transfers from phone calls.
'Going to where students are' seems to be a theme in social-networking discussions, and they mean virtually," he says. "It's equally important to go where they are physically."
The diverging visions for reference services — face to face versus virtual, and desk versus no desk — were strikingly, even uncomfortably, apparent at an Association of College & Research Libraries conference session on reference in Baltimore last month.

The message from the panel, which included Mr. Campbell and Mr. Mathews, was direct and clear: Reference services need to get online, get away from the desk, and scale up.

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1 comment:

Bill Drew said...

This whole discussion of getting rid of the reference desk assumes all libraries need/should do it. That is bull manure as far as I am concerned. It all depends on your local situation. Expanding reference services into social networking areas does not mean you have to eliminate the physical reference desk. Reference librarians walking around does not mean you eliminate the desk either. I found the people in the discussion to be very pompous and unacquainted with what most academic libraries are doing.