Are Library Reference Desks Obsolete?

It’s a library’s mission to provide ready access to information – but are reference desks necessary in order to do that? Some librarians would argue that the reference desk is where the “real” library work is done, while others feel reference desks are obsolete and a legacy of the profession.

According to IMLS’s 2012 survey, there were 284.3 million reference transactions at public libraries or 0.9 reference transactions per capita in FY 2012, a 1-year decrease of 3.9 percent. Over 10 years that’s a 13.9% decrease in transactions, which seems to indicate a steady decline in public interest. But this data doesn’t tell the whole story.

According to IMLS, reference transactions per capita are similar across libraries serving different population sizes and have remained (relatively) stable:

  • Libraries serving fewer than 2,500 people (0 .9),
  • Libraries serving between 2,500 and 10,000 people (0 .8),
  • Libraries serving between 10,000 and 25,000 people (0 .8),

Libraries serving more than 25,000 people have the highest number of inquiries per capita (1 .0), but libraries for this demographic saw a 1-year decrease of 4 .4 percent in reference transactions per capita in 2012. In fact, reference transactions per capita vary among states with 18 states showing a 1-year increase in reference desk inquiries versus a 33 state decrease in the same time period.

Even more confusing is the argument that not all libraries (or librarians) count reference inquiries the same way. The act of counting reference inquiries seems to be a way to argue that the desk itself is still necessary.

Are reference desks really necessary?

“This past June the Columbia University Libraries partnered with Cornell University and the University of Toronto on an ARL-sponsored library liaison institute with 50 liaison librarians,” says Barbara Rockenbach, Director of the Humanities and History Libraries at Columbia University. “There were a number of liaisons who felt that reference as a service is still a part of our professional identity and a value in our profession. For some liaisons, reference represents being available for our community, and a place where relationships begin with faculty and students that can be built upon with further consultations and instruction sessions.”

Perhaps the need for reference inquiries hasn’t died down, they just aren’t going to the reference desk. “I think some patrons expect to see a reference desk and would feel lost without one,” says Erika Spelman, Librarian at Brooklyn Public Library. “On the other hand, many patrons are intimidated by reference desks. Sometimes they are more comfortable asking staff out on the floor for assistance, including pages and volunteers who really cannot help them.” And isn’t that the purpose of a library—to help patrons find information?

“At Yale we closed our main reference desk back in 2008, and it was long overdue,” says Todd Gilman, Librarian for Literature in English, Yale University. “But when I mention this [to other librarians] elsewhere I can feel the anxiety in the room. ‘Oh no! Not the beloved reference desk! What will we do all day if we can’t sit there looking ready to help?’”

Is reference part of the library’s mission?

“It’s not part of our mission to have a desk,” says Rockenbach. “It is our mission to be available to help with research and to partner with students and faculty on their research. The desk is a symbol and a part of the legacy of our profession. I loved being at the reference desk when I first became a librarian. It was instant gratification because you are helping people all day. We have seen a sharp decline in reference desk interactions and an increase in research consultations. In response, we have combined our reference desk with our Digital Humanities Center where we have lots of interactions with faculty and students that are more involved and less transactional.  It is a library-centric view to say it’s important and to keep the desk for its symbolic value. There is a rich tradition of reference and we want to honor that, but at the same time research is evolving and librarians have an opportunity to engage in partnerships with faculty and students that go beyond the reference desk.”

While reference desks are often seen as a symbol of the mission of libraries, other libraries have opted to field questions through email, instant messaging, and other mobile technologies including social media. This approach offers just-in-time responses to reference questions instead of allocating them to one person behind a desk. As David S. Nolan argues, it’s important to stay true to the mission of reference without getting focused on the delivery or methodology.

Is being face-to-face really that important? “If it were feasible, I’d say having at least one librarian at the desk and one out on the floor ready to offer help (without being pushy or coming across like a store clerk approaching people who just want to browse) would be a good idea,” says Spelman.

“I think it’s important to be available to students and faculty,” says Rockenbach. “A desk is not required for that in all libraries.”

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