in Libraries/Info Sci, Tech, UAH

Decline of the Reference Desk

I meant to comment about this back when the article first appeared, but let it slip a bit. The Chronicle recently published an article called “Are Reference Desks Dying Out?”

Even with my limited experience working the desk (a bit over 18 months now), there’s a lot in the article I can immediately agree with. Our stats for questions answered are dropping, especially when you look at how many in depth questions are asked. Most that remain are simple yes/no answers, overhead issues like the location of the bathroom, or quick directions to where a certain source is on the shelf. There are still some questions that require full length reference interviews, but it isn’t uncommon for me to go a full desk shift without encountering one.

One place I don’t see this dropoff is in our virtual reference system. Right now we only accept questions via a web form or e-mail. I haven’t analyzed this mathematically, but I have no doubt that a much higher proportion of e-questions involve extensive research than their in-person counterparts. As frustrating as answering questions this way can be (for both librarians and the students), I find it interesting that students do prefer this method for asking in-depth questions. I think it’s mostly a matter of convenience.

An interesting side effect of accepting questions this way is that we tend to get questions from an entirely different set of users than we would otherwise. We were recently able to help a researcher in New Zealand get access to one of our special collections online, for example.

I don’t think the reference desk will completely disappear in our lifetimes. But like anything else, it won’t stay static either – the service is in transition.