Fleeing the Reference Desk | ALA 2013

Librarians gathered for what was billed "a refdesk-shattering event.”
New reference program Fleeing the Reference Desk |

From left to right: Stephanie Chase, Todd Dunkelberg, Sue Banks, Abigail Elder

On Sunday morning, June 30th, at the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual conference in Chicago, librarians gathered for what was billed “a refdesk-shattering event.” It turned out to be more about reference-desk truancy, as the thought-provoking panelists described working in the heart of their communities—physically leaving the library to participate in rotary meetings and assist small businesses, for example.

On the panel were Todd Dunkelberg, (Director, Deschutes Public Library, Bend, OR), Stephanie Chase (Director of Library Programs and Services, The Seattle Public Library), and Sue Banks (Deputy Director, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh); the event was moderated by Abigail Elder (Director, Beaverton City Library, OR).

Elder started the program by asking the panelists how libraries can best use expert staff now that “traditional reference” is less active. Dunkelberg answered by describing how, when it was looking for inspiration for a new library marketing tagline, his library took a series of videos of community members talking about the library. What they mainly heard, he said, was, “the library is great. I should go there,” which he translated as meaning, “the library is a place you should feel guilty about.” Realizing that “40 to 50 percent of the community is paying us and getting nothing” was the impetus for Dunkelberg to make his reference librarians “community librarians.”

Banks described a similar change in patron habits when she was Central Library Director for Multnomah County Library in Portland, OR. It’s necessary, she said, to “look at the truth of the organization you’re working in and the community you’re serving,” and to that end Multnomah undertook a study of its usage using OrangeBoy consulting services. The results revealed that patrons stayed a long time per visit in the library, but that they weren’t there to ask questions, a change that the staff had not yet perceived. The library’s response was to turn away from terming and thinking about what they did as reference, instead calling their service “readers’ advisory for fiction and nonfiction.” This helped with marketing and enabled the staff, Banks said, “to think big.” The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is in step with these changes also; the audience heard from Banks that among services offered by her current employer are pop-up libraries and “crafted outreach activity.” More details are available, she said, in Carnegie’s strategic plan.

For every action…
The panel then turned to the question of librarian reaction to changes in reference work. Chase, also formerly at Multnomah County Library, described how workers there were reluctant to believe the results of the OrangeBoy study, but that ultimately it forced them to figure out how to become more involved in the community. The reaction, Chase continued, depends on the person. It’s important to realize, she said, that the new approach must meet patrons half way; it’s been a struggle to match expert staff to existing modes and timing of reference questions. Patrons now mostly approach reference staff through email and other virtual means, she said, explaining that questions are “now coming in at 11 at night after someone’s already tried Googling it.” Librarians’ community work, therefore, must be combined with access to email.

Chase explained that academic libraries are a reliable test bed when considering new approaches to reference. Multnomah adopted the academic habit of setting up one-on-one appointments with patrons, for example, and used roving librarians as an answer to the problem of patrons not being able to abandon their laptops while they go ask a reference question.

For librarians in the audience who were inspired by this plan to hire community librarians, Elder asked an important question, “How do you find this magical person?” Dunkelberg was quick to reply that generalists are the answer, and Banks concurred, explaining that the trend toward community involvement by her library had influenced the local School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh into creating more emotionally intelligent students.

Dunkelberg ended on a positive note: since the community librarian program began, a librarian who was initially opposed to the change has now embraced it, as it’s similar to selective dissemination of information (SDI) services, which she had long dreamed to adopt. Most importantly, he said, reference questions are up, which was the idea in the first place.

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