In the last few weeks I’ve been part of several conversations with other librarians about reference services. And now that I’m at an academic librarian conference (Hello ACRL!), I’m having even more of these conversations. Some people talk about moving away from the reference desk model entirely, others are conflicted, or shifting the service in various ways. All have very good reasons for making the decisions they’re making.
Like so many things in life, though, I find that there are a lot of unstated assumptions and values at play in these conversations. This morning I attended a great talk about navigating change, and one of the biggest assertions in that presentation was that we have to unpack the words we use when we state our values because our working definitions and the behaviors associated with those working definitions can vary significantly. People may think they’re talking about the same thing because they both say “Openness” or “Respect,” but they’re actually not. And if people think that there are gaps between their experience of your stated values and your working, behavioral definitions of those values, that’s when trust erodes.
This connected in my connection-seeking brain with all the librarian conversations where people decide what kind of librarian you are based on your stance on staffing models for reference desks. Are you That Kind of Librarian who wants to staff the desk “just in case” there are questions, or are you That Kind Of Librarian who “doesn’t value reference?” Whole identities can be decided in a moment on this one issue.
But here’s the thing, if we start to unpack what we actually mean when we talk about “the desk” — just like we use the reference interview to unpack patron needs — I think it uncovers a much more fundamental set of values. These values may or may not be served by a reference service at any given institution, but where a reference desk is not the option, these values still need to be enacted by some other service model somehow.
So here are three of the things that have bubbled to the surface during these conversations I’ve been having in the last few weeks. None of these were true 100% of the time at desks, of course, and none of them will be true 100% of the time in any model. But they are values that I think are key to building and sustaining a research/reference service.
Visible Demonstration of Function (Especially Interest)
Even if patrons aren’t actively seeking out the service or actively learning about support options, they should be able to see you being kind and welcoming and helpful and engaged and excited about other patrons’ information needs. Maybe your patrons will walk past you a million times on the way to and from the printers, or the bathrooms, or whatever, but they become passively aware of the service and its function. And they become passively aware that librarians love the act of information seeking, love the hunt, love the puzzle, and love more than anything else the opportunity to engage with people who are curious or confused and who will have their lives made easier by access to some information or a more nuanced ability to evaluate and use what they have found.
We’re nerds at heart, and pathologically helpful, and we find our reason for existing in the ability to both help people and geek out at the same time. But our “brand” on campus is often much blander than this – much more tied to the mechanics of access. And the only way to help people see that we’re good for more than “My professor said I needed 3 peer reviewed articles…” is for people to see that we’re broadly interested in information seeking and use, information-based rhetoric, and information structures. Without this, we run the real risk of having ever fewer questions, and then cutting services back further, and then having fewer questions… in a vicious cycle to oblivion. And all this not because we’re no longer relevant or whatever, but because people can’t see what we actually do and care about.
Low Barriers to Use
Barriers come in all shapes and sizes, of course, and different people find different things to be barriers. This is one reason to have multiple methods of getting and receiving help.
At least one of these methods should allow people to somewhat randomly get drop-in help without doing a lot of information seeking to find out how to get help or to formally schedule things. Predictable drop-in hours and locations (physical or virtual) that are well matched with people’s existing habits help tremendously with this. So does shared language and modes of engagement that match existing cultures and contexts.
For the librarians: Access to a broad cross-section of questions – especially “basic” questions
We know better what’s working and what’s not, what instruction worked and what didn’t, what tools work and what tools are confusing, etc, by being exposed to as many questions as possible from as broad a cross-section of a community as possible. The questions from just the people who know you already or just the people who specialize in the same things you do are good and important and useful, but more than that is even better.
In a lot of ways, the “easy” questions are more telling than the complex ones if your goal is to keep tabs on what your population finds easy or hard. These “basic” questions may be accommodated by a variety of service models, but they are decidedly not unimportant questions. If anything, they may be the most important questions — the questions that tell us valuable things about tools or services that we haven’t set up right. It’s not the patron’s fault for asking the “wrong” questions — The User Is Not Broken. It’s on us to make it so that, wherever possible, “easy” things are easy for our users, too. Or if we make the decision to opt for a set-up that isn’t strictly the easiest option, we should have well-considered reasons for this choice. In academic libraries, for example, there are times when the better solution is one that helps our students learn things even if it means an extra click or two. But these decisions should be weighed carefully, and monitoring the tenor of these most basic questions is one way of figuring out if you’ve struck the right balance for your context.
These are some of the things that I think lurk beneath the surface for people who “value the desk.” And for people who have moved away from the desk, these are some of things that they have to recreate in their new service models.
What else is lurking? What else do we value in a reference service, no matter that service’s model? What are effective modes of enacting those values so that they are apparent and transparent to our communities? Let’s build an actually articulated definition, and then test our services against that definition.