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The Research/IT Desk

Sitting here at the reference desk for my Monday afternoon shift, I’m reminded of one reason that I no longer dread my desk shifts. Well, one obvious reason is that now I have a lot more reference experience, so I no longer tremble whenever a student asks, “Do you have a minute?” But experience aside, I prefer desk shifts here because I rarely have to answer any technical questions, un-jam copiers and printers, recover lost papers, teach graph making in Excel, or trouble-shoot any other computer problem. At my previous library, this is mostly what I did during desk shifts.

It’s not that our students are more computer-savvy than the students at my previous library. If anything, there are more computer questions here because we have three computer labs here instead of one. No, this bliss is all because someone a couple of years ago (in September of 2004, to be precise) came up with the brilliant idea of providing a joint service point merging research help with technical help, transforming our reference desk into the Research/IT desk. So, to alleviate my sadness about not being at Internet Librarian, I thought I’d amuse myself by writing this all down before we forget what the first few years of this service were like.

The Progression

Before I begin, I should mention that I am NOT the authority on this subject. I just work here. My co-worker, Heather, is the point person for this and has presented on it several times and done a poster on it at ALA.

Anyway, For many years, now, Carleton has had IT support for students. They call this place the SCIC (pronounced “skick”), and it’s a pretty full-service joint. A whole battalion of geekish students (affectionately called “SCICers”), headed up by two full-time staff (“the SCICitator” and another guy without a nickname… we’ll have to work on that), troubleshoot software and even repair some hardware and clean up virus infestations.

Well, two years ago the decision was made that the SCIC would start sending some of the student workers over to the library to sit next to the librarian on duty at the reference desk. I wasn’t working here then, so all I know about these early experiments is second hand. Basically, everyone could see that it was valuable… except the student workers. They didn’t like being away from the SCIC because here they’re on their own, their fellow student workers are a building away, they are more visible so they can’t play games or wear headphones, and there’s different technology to learn. The biggest thing that year, though, was communication. The librarians weren’t these students’ supervisors, and we didn’t even really get to know them very well because there were 40 of them rotating through the library, and the librarians’ desk shifts weren’t consistent. So any SCICer could quite possibly work an entire term without working next to the same librarian more than once or twice.

Last year things got more formalized. SCICers staffed the desk for the entire time the library was open (even when there weren’t librarians on duty), and the SCICitator worked with the librarians to provide formal training in the special types of service and support issues that come with working in the library (microfilm reader/scanner/printers, SMART board issues, referring research questions, etc.). What’s more the SCICitator decided to schedule only second-year SCICers in the library, so they wouldn’t be learning the basics while cut off from their fellow student workers and their supervisor/mentor. On the librarians’ side, we regularized our reference desk shifts so that we would always be sitting next to the same students (except in the case of substitutions). Most importantly, though, we formalized the communication that happens between the librarians and the SCICitator. One of the librarians acts as the liaison to the SCIC and meets with the SCICitator briefly every week. She also coordinates training for the students. We’ve also worked on developing a habit of emailing the SCICitator if a student does really well or goes above and beyond, or if they miss shifts or in other ways slack off.

And slowly but surely, we’re seeing an attitude shift among the SCICers. It’s now a rare thing for them to show up with the attitude that this service point it “extra” or less cool. Some of them even try to shift their schedules so that they work only at the library.

The Benefits

Librarians immediately saw a significant drop in the number of “short” reference questions we answer. By itself, this is just interesting to us. But it become significant in terms of the service we provide when you pair this trend with the steady increase in the number of “long” reference transactions we have. Students are finding us available for in-depth research assistance now that we aren’t running after paper and re-starting computers. Now only that, but students are starting to seek out the technical assistance at our desk that they would previously have taken to the main SCIC, so there has been a significant increase in the number of questions handled by the SCIC side of the Research/IT desk over the course of the past two years. (The library is the busiest building on campus, so it makes sense to have this service here rather than sending everyone to another building.)

The Challenges

There are two main challenges that we’ve faced: communication/reporting and statistics collection. Formalizing the communication channels has really helped, and now that at least half of the SCICers don’t remember working when there wasn’t a library service point, they don’t balk at librarians stepping in to give them duties or brainstorm about solutions to problems. And this year we’ve gone to online statistics collection, which seems to feel more legitimate to these students. We know that they were under-reporting last year because many of them couldn’t be bothered to fill in little hash marks on a piece of paper. This year they’re still probably under-reporting, but making entries into an online database just FEELS more important, so they’re making the effort.

So we haven’t completely worked through all the ins and outs of this service point, but I’ve gotta say, I really like it. It frees us up significantly, and we get to develop relationships with a whole new set of students that we never really saw before.

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  1. […] written before about our Research/IT desk, and how we sit elbow-to-elbow with student workers who don’t […]

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