The State of the Reference Desk

Booklist's Reference Reality column in its May 15th issue, by Rebecca Vnuk, provides a good snapshot of library reference work today.

...Celeste Choate, of Ann Arbor District Library (MI), made the dramatic revelation at this year’s PLA conference that the library is making one last, yearlong marketing push for its databases, and if there is not an uptick in usage, that’s it: gone.

This, from a librarian at the U. of Akron, made me laugh.  It's not quite this grim for us, but not far off:
...the questions we receive at the reference desk are consistent and maddeningly predictable. They are nearly all a variation of some kind of printing question—How do I print? Where do I pick up my print job? How do I fit multiple slides on one page? How do I print double-sided, in color, on larger paper?, etc. We do get the occasional question about how to use the scanner, providing a welcome respite from the printer questions.

Carolyn Mulac, at the Chicago Public Library, describes the new reality of reference work well:
Patrons today are more likely to ask “how” or “how do I” than “who,” “what,” “where,” or “why.” Although we may be answering fewer questions, the nature of those questions often requires more explanation and instruction, and thus more time, than a quick fact check. Explaining how to download an e-book or search a database or online catalog may take more time (and patience) than finding that elusive fact.

“Can’t you just type this into the computer?” is often heard, whether the question involves checking one specific fact or entails extensive searching of some kind. ...We’re often asked to “look up this website and tell me what it says”—basically, we’re being asked to be a human interface to Google.

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