Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Shall We Get Rid of the Reference Desk?

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Shall We Get Rid of the Reference Desk?

Article excerpt

Traditional reference services involve a professional librarian sitting at a reference desk waiting for patrons to approach and when a question is asked, providing assistance. This model of service is one that, for many librarians, is hard to give up. However, an increasing numbers of librarians claim that the reference desk is outmoded and that there are better ways to provide reference service.

The spark that began the process of offering assistance to patrons was ignited when Samuel Swett Green of the Worcester Free Public Library presented his paper "The Desirableness of Establishing Personal Intercourse and Relations Between Librarians and Readers in Popular Libraries" at the American Library Association Conference in 1876. After his article appeared in Library Journal in November of that year, there was a gradual change in the role of the librarian from custodial to service-oriented. (1)

Just when the reference desk came to be the point of contact for help from a librarian is not known. However, in an 1886 report of the St. Louis Public Library, the term desk was used as the place where the library assistant answered questions, and by the early 1890s the term information desk was being used. (2) Once reference librarians began to use the desk as the place to do their work in serving people, the model stuck. Few questioned the assumption that the reference desk was the very center of reference service until the 1980s.


Many librarians have complained that reference service from the desk is an inefficient method in providing service to patrons and needs to be drastically changed or eliminated. In 1986, Barbara Ford was one of the first to suggest the elimination of the reference desk. Ford questioned both the efficiency and effectiveness of reference service provided from the reference desk and challenged the idea of the reference desk as the center of reference service. (3) Keith Ewing and Robert Hauptman, David W Lewis, Jerry D, Campbell, Gabriela Sonntag, and Felicia Palsson have all advocated for the elimination of the reference desk. (4) Steven Bell has been an active voice in calling for eliminating the reference desk. He reiterated the main problems of the reference desk and said that the reference desk is only a symbol of reference service, not the service itself. He then concluded it is time to eliminate the reference desk and adopt new models. (5)

What are the problems with traditional reference service? Karen Summerhill pointed out that reference librarians have an inefficient service model, one that is designed for "'emergency' style services in a non-emergency situation." (6) Summerhill argued that the consultation services that professional librarians should give should be offered by appointment, like lawyers, doctors, teachers, and professors do, not in the emergency style that is common at the reference desk. (7) Ann Lipow felt that when a patron needs help from the reference librarian, it means that the tools that are in place to help the patron--the catalog, the signage--have failed. (8) Aaron Schmidt said that putting librarians behind a desk is "unfriendly" to patrons and makes it easy for librarians to ignore what is going on around them. (9) Other problems cited with traditional reference service include

* librarians wasting time waiting for reference questions to answer; (10)

* most of the questions asked are of the kind that any trained student can answer, and even the complicated ones that librarians traditionally answer can be answered by students with proper training; (11)

* and the high cost of professional librarians manning the reference desk. (12)

However, the biggest problem with traditional reference service has to do not with the model, but with changes in the world around the reference librarian. The library used to be the repository of human knowledge and was the only place to go to find information. …

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