Monday, July 18, 2005

go figure...

One of the things that is frustrating about searching for information on the elimination of the reference desk in academic libraries is that the phrase “reference desk” is overused in a big way – and not necessarily within the library realm. Take the following for example:

The Educator’s Reference Desk


RefDesk.com – Facts Subject Index


ReferenceDesk.org


Martindale’s ‘The Reference Desk’

Now I’m not saying that these particular sites are not worthy of the title “reference desk”, nor am I disputing their value – I’m sure they are all well researched sites with good information. In fact I know for certain that a couple of them definitely are. What I am concerned about is that if every information site on the web is calling itself a reference desk of some sort, do users now associate the library’s physical reference desk with a website of this type? Are the library staff who sit at the reference desk now considered to be nothing more than quickie providers of quickie facts? (I hesitate to use the word quickie here, but it’s just so darned appropriate) What I mean to say is that when referring a student to library reference staff and directing them to the reference desk, are we doing ourselves a disservice now that reference desks exist virtually everywhere? While I understand the purveyors of these websites likely want to give their collections of information validity, draw on the long-standing tradition of service the reference desk suggests and perhaps even provide something familiar, comfortable and recognizable to their users (“oh yeah, the reference desk is where I used to go in the library when I needed help!” *user getting all nostalgic*) I worry that those of us who sit at this imposing structure might be mistaken for one of these reference desk websites. (and I mean this figuratively of course) But we are more than providers of quick facts and figures – more than the proverbial “ready-reference” stuff - the lists of job banks, access to the census tracts, the city directory and how to create a bibliography. Now, I certainly don’t mean to say that ALL the questions that come across my library’s reference desk are so banal and quickie. But a good number of them are. And the other problem is that if users think that’s all we’re good for, then that is all they will ask! If reference desk = quick information then what of the students who have detailed questions? Do they worry that their questions are out of place at the reference desk? Is this why they say, “I’m sorry to bother you...” when they have a question that CAN’T be answered by handing them a sheet of paper with the answer on it?

And while we’re on the subject, the other mistake users might make is to assume that we, like their ref desk website, have the information at a click. For instance, want to know a bit about physics? Click here and learn! What about when you head to the actual reference desk to ask the actual librarian? Well they might ask you a few questions first, to determine what it is you really need. Then they will probably take you to a computer to look for the information – but all this takes time! Isn’t this the REFERENCE DESK for goodness sake? Shouldn’t you people just be able to click something to get my information right NOW?!? Of course, I’m exaggerating. Or am I? I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to equate reference desk with immediate information these days. This is nothing new of course; we all recognize the fascination with the immediateness of the net and the attention spans of its users. But labelling a site “the reference desk” merely adds to this myth that it’s all on the web, and it’s all right there right now. The reference desk, once the domain of the library and the reference librarians who staffed it, has been adopted and used by other organizations. It has been tricked out with flashy colours, ads, and collections of “cool” links. Yes, dear friends, the reference desk has been pimped.

So. My point. And yes, I do have one, and I’m getting to it...eventually... haha! My original task was to research the elimination of the reference desk in academic libraries. Some libraries have indeed done away with the desk itself, and librarians roam the stacks/computer areas, etc. in search of students in trouble with their research or needing help finding stuff on shelves, like so many information superheroes (which is a whole other blog entry. I actually envision the librarian signal, like the bat signal....ooooh the mind reels...) So in doing this research I not only consulted the literature but I cruised the web as well, looking for nuggets. This is how I came across the use of the reference desk title on any number of websites. After sifting through these and checking out several to determine what exactly they mean when they call themselves a reference desk, I’m more convinced than ever that the library reference desk as we know it needs to go. It also needs another name, a name that connotes what we do and how we do it. The reference desk image has been sold out; the term has become meaningless. So what do I propose? The immediate removal of the reference desk – to be of course replaced by a slick looking reference “bar” or some other home base for reference staff. I also encourage the renaming of this reference home base – we dare not call it the desk – with something more descriptive, something more to do with information but not to do with “help” – help is another one of those overused words that can mean anything or nothing.

The concept of the reference desk has changed, thanks to overuse on the web. It now refers to “a website with lots of information” or “a website that has a list of websites that might be useful to you as a starting point for information about your particular topic”. We deserve something better!

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