Monday, April 12, 2010

The Qualitative Place of the Reference Desk Today

David Michalski
Humanities and Social Sciences Librarian
University of California, Davis

Even as we reach and serve more and more patrons remotely through new forms of tele-presence, the properly equipped and staffed Reference Desk remains an important part of both the 21st Century library and university. It not only serves as the symbolic center for our activities, it continues as the physical embodiment our mission to the campus. It is, of course, not our only point of contact. The Reference Desk is a site in a wider network of reference interactions made through both static and interactive online tools, virtual meetings and face-to-face meetings in offices and in class instruction, as well as in other public forums. Yet the Reference Desk, by virtue of its very immobility and permanence, is a central hinge between the library and its users. It serves as the anchor and dispatch center for all our flexible and mobile initiatives. It is our office and our laboratory, an open and public node where we can engage the climate of our researchers and the hub from which we embark in service of the university’s educational and research missions. Both history and current events show space and materiality are still important in the construct of our social world, in fact, no less so in today’s fast and liquid information environment. Ultimately, we occupy this space so that we are accountable to our public.

Spatially, the Reference Desk serves as an invitation to our users. It shows that we are employed in their interest. In my experience at Peter J. Shields Library at the University of California, Davis, I find patrons approaching the Reference Desk on which I serve for many reasons, for orientation, for resource discovery, and for conversations about the distribution and context of information. Situated at the center of campus, our Reference Desk is often busy. Every quarter, I meet new faculty and researchers, help new students with old problems and new assignments, and meet continuing students who have progressed from the academic novice to the intellectually engaged scholar. It is a mutually rewarding and challenging space from which to serve the campus and community.

New powerful tools and burgeoning resources in print and online have allowed the information environment to flourish. New possibilities, truly await today’s scholars, but these advances also make the information landscape increasingly complex. In this environment, the Reference Desk is used increasingly to ameliorate the confusion encountered online. The opportunity to speak directly with the librarian offers patrons a clear and direct communication of their needs and their challenges. The Reference Desk provides the much needed space and time to listen and provide information and advice in a relatively unmediated way. Time and again I’ve seen the reference desk, staffed by knowledgeable people turn frustrated users back into hopeful researchers. Undoubtedly, this commitment to our users contains costs, and its value is, like most knowledge, difficult to account, but beside counting the papers saved, insights sparked, or careers changed because of the fruitful interplay between librarians and researchers, the Reference Desk must also be recognized as a place to communicate our ethical responsibility to our users.

The rapport created there not only translates into future good will towards the library and university, but better research skills for the patron. Even when the patron approaches the desk to ask for known items or to access sets of pre-conceived information, the contact with the librarian often leads to new, more complex, questions, and sometimes, new research endeavors. New questions develop and new ways to organize projects take form, because reference is a more than a place of questions and answers. It is a space of translation, interpretation, and knowledge formation.

Face-to-face researcher-librarian interaction allows researchers to engage in embodied conversations in concert with the information world. Researchers can walk through their search results with the librarian as an interpretive guide or docent. It is a form of interaction that benefits both the researcher and the library as an institution. In the anthropological terms, it is a rich site for the transfer of cultures and skills. The librarian uses this interaction to impart search techniques, and convey the peculiarities of a discourse’s publication and distribution. Pertinent information about the scope and coverage of available resources is also taught, all with a consciousness of, and reciprocity to the researcher’s disposition. With an eye and ear to the situation at hand, to the patron’s level of skill, the signs and postures of time and attention allow for in-situ adjustments. Communication strategy can be altered by assessing the value and comprehension of communication and instruction imparted. Information is not simply dispensed at the Reference Desk, but communicated in a humane manner. In the best circumstances, knowledge about the fuller social life of information can be discussed. The librarian can work to put the researcher’s project in context with the wider intellectual environment. The new perspective built through conversations can lead to new paths of discovery.

Being there, being present, helps the library work in concert with faculty and students. In our large and complex Universities, perhaps uniquely, the librarian at the Reference Desk is there to listen, to put a face in front of the machine. We perform as information consultants and counselors and the Reference Desk becomes the safe place for such communication. It is a confidential place away from the judgment of professors, a place to inquire, explore, learn and grow. It is where we teach novices not to be intimidated by the languages of scholarship. It is where we hear problems, and in the best cases, where we offer solutions and build confidence.

The librarian at the Reference Desk is also uniquely positioned to convey the institution’s message and mission. She or he wears the University’s public face, offering the best attributes of what is too often dismissed as mere customer service. In the University today we must strengthen our engagement with the public. This node is where the library as an institution can best learn from the populations it serves. It is a prime and unfiltered information gathering point for the library in its efforts to remain relevant to the University. Each conversation there informs collection development decisions, instructional needs, and outreach methods. The librarian on the Reference Desk records the core concerns and trends of our faculty and students. As such, the Reference Desk is generative of library and librarian expertise. It enables us as an institution to react, adjust, and think. A librarian confronted with the assignments and research projects learns the challenges of the engaged student or advanced scholar, and develops creative problem solving techniques as well as information that can be used to enhance the library and better support the University’s mission.

The Reference desk is only one node in the overall provision of reference services, but it is unique in its extensibility, flexibility, and power. It creates conversations that build sustained relationships under the partnership of mutual inquiry and concern for the information experience. It is also the place where our commitment to our public is judged. And rightfully so, for if we can not be bothered to engage the public here, what faith will the public have in us across the screen?

See also...

From General Reference to Subject Specialty

On Ubiquitous Instruction


1 comment:

Matt said...

David makes some very good points here about the importance of in-person interactions. The implication seems to favor subject reference desks as opposed to consolidation and substitution with online or remote reference. Perhaps that will be the subject of the next posting.