The reference model at my institution is in a state of flux: our newly built science library is based on a learning commons model while our older, humanities and social sciences library uses a traditional reference service model. One of the biggest differences between the two service models is how the desks are staffed. Students and paraprofessionals staff the science library’s learning commons, while professional librarians, paraprofessionals, and students staff the reference desk at the humanities and social sciences library.The thought behind the staffing plan at the new library is that students and paraprofessionals can answer most questions and can refer more difficult questions to the proper liaison librarian. Professional librarians do not staff this desk regularly. Plans are in the works to transition the old library to a learning commons model similar to the one used at the new library. The lingering, unanswered question remains: will professional librarians still staff the old reference desk or will the staffing duties fall to paraprofessionals and students?
I know that ours is not the only academic library wrestling with this particular issue. True reference questions are on the decline, and the argument could easily be made that there are better uses of trained professionals’ time than filling paper trays in the printer and directing students to the nearest restroom. The literature certainly speaks to that point (see examples of the debate in the list of further readings below).
As I write this, I don’t claim to know the answer to the question of how should we staff our reference desks. In the end, I guess the real challenge is determining how to we can best provide reference services to our users. So I’d like to turn the question to you.
How does your institution staff its reference service points? Do low reference question statistics indicate that librarians aren’t needed on the desk or that the service needs better marketing? Has your library tried any innovative methods of offering and/or promoting reference services?
Feel free to answer these questions as a comment on this post or bring your thoughts to the LES Reference Discussion Group this Sunday from 8 to 10 a.m. in the Colorado BR E in the Marriott City Center hotel in downtown Denver, CO.
For further reading:
Banks, Julie, and Carl Pracht. “Reference Desk Staffing Trends: A Survey.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 48.1 (2008): 54-59.
Fitzpatrick, Elizabeth B., Anne C. Moore, and Beth W. Lang. “Reference Librarians at the Reference Desk in a Learning Commons: A Mixed Methods Evaluation.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 34.3 (2008): 231-238.
Ryan, Susan M. “Reference Transactions Analysis: The Cost-Effectiveness of Staffing a Traditional Academic Reference Desk.” Journal of Academic Librarianship 34.5 (2008): 389-399.