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Our next reference desk should be a dark room with a closed door

Free-hand sketch of my side of the reference room

We often joke at my library about how my co-worker and I are always on reference duty even when we’re not at the desk because our offices are the first two in the row of offices along the reference room wall. I had been thinking of it as just one of those things… kind of annoying sometimes but not a huge deal. Now I’m wondering if I can learn from it.

I’m sure his experience is similar to mine, but here’s mine. Students pop in to ask me where a call number is even when someone’s at the desk not 25 feet from me (and far closer to the entrance to the reference room). During the summer when we have “on call” reference, I’m basically always on call, even when I close my door. Today a student worker from the post office asked if she could leave a package with me since the Archives door was closed. (The archives are three floors downstairs.) Last week I was out in the reference area and a student hovered around my closed, dark office door. When asked if he needed to talk to me, he said he just needed help finding if we had the full text of an article. He’d walked right past the staffed desk to find an office, any office, even if it was clearly uninhabited at the time.

This has made me wonder about several things, but two in particular.

  1. Are college students that much more comfortable looking for an office than looking for a desk? Office hours are a fundamental part of a college student’s experience, and maybe there’s something either more legitimate or simply more private about an office.
  2. We designed our desk to be unimposing. It’s not a fortress; it’s a desk much like the other computer tables in the room, except that it’s got a sign hanging over it that says “Research/IT” and it’s positioned so that you walk directly at it as you enter the room. Maybe unintimidating a red herring. Maybe they’re looking for more of a Structure. More of an office… After all, closing my door (and sometimes even turning out my light) should be a bit intimidating, but it clearly doesn’t get in their way. They’re looking for an academic authority figure, and apparently that comes with trappings that don’t include “unintimidating.”

6 thoughts on “Our next reference desk should be a dark room with a closed door

  1. Great food for thought! You make a good point about students being used to office hours for professors, so why not at the library too? I think offices are a lot less intimidating for students, which could impact their library anxiety issues. Interesting…

  2. Iris, it sounds like they seek you. Perhaps you give off one of those “I am wise, ask anything of me” vibes. They will find you, no matter where your office is located. I must give off that same vibe; I get asked for help at bookstores, grocery stores, conferences, and directions while sitting in traffic or walking the streets of cities where i don’t live.

  3. While that is a very flattering thought, Rebecca (and while I do get asked for help on street corners and grocery stores) that vibe must be far stronger than I’d have thought possible to work on people who can’t see me and have never met me! My vibe knows no bounds!! :-)

    I wonder if there’s a way to market that…

  4. Iris, this is brilliant. Your comment about office hours makes perfect sense. There’s so little context for what we are when we stand at the desk that it’s not surprising people are confused.

  5. OK…I think part of the problem is your sign. Think about what it says “Research/IT.” It does not say “Help available here” or “Got a question.” Research is big, imposing, important. Finding a book on the shelf is not research. So, some of our colleagues talk about thinking about the “User Experience.” I think that your sign is one part of your problem. [Of course, I am writing this sitting at a desk with a big, old fashioned sign which says “Reference Desk.”]

  6. I agree with Michael. I think it’s a question of signage. “Research/IT” sounds as unapproachable as “Reference.” They probably think that since they aren’t doing research or have computer issues, they can’t approach the desk. Try switching the sign to something more generic and see if that changes things.

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