Here’s the problem with a combined circulation and reference desk: it doesn’t work…unless…
reference disappears. I know, it’s harsh. So how can you possibly have a circulation/reference desk if there is no reference? Well, let me rephrase, reference needs to dissolve. Wait, is that more harsh? Whatever, let me explain:
Reference transactions have seen a dramatic decline in recent years. We all know that the internet is finding our information for us faster with minimal awkward encounters at a service desk. So it only makes sense to add reference to circulation (a still very relevant and active service) to save staff, space, embarrassment, etc. Hey, I’m down with it.
But what I am not so crazy about is the assumption that circulation is going to be unable or unwilling to perform said reference transactions. What? Where did this crap come from? Don’t get me wrong, reference brings value. I believe that reference is important for the community we serve. In-depth research assistance is especially important to this community. However, those in-depth research questions are not getting asked at a service desk. So why spend valuable staff time on a desk that sees very little activity? Many institutions have seen the light and are hopping on this combined services bandwagon. They might be taking a wrong turn when continuing to keep traditional reference services on this new desk. If you are going to combine and do it right, you need to become a new service. It’s not circulation and it’s not reference, it’s something else altogether. But you can’t even do that without accepting that traditional reference no longer dominates, as well as, accepting that circulation staff, student assistants and all, will be responsible to providing this service from now on.
What I am proposing is a little controversial. I remember a few years back a colleague wrote about how reference does not need a desk and it went crazy up in here. So, please forgive me. Here’s what I think: there is no reference. Just like there is no circulation. There is research and there is access service. So, if traditional reference no longer exists and circulation incorporates basic reference functions into it’s routine, where does that leave the reference librarian? Confused, hurt, and a little angry. They are the ones who are impacted the most from this change. We are constantly talking about training staff and acclimating them to the reference culture and “reference interview” but we are not talking about the culture shock that the reference librarian is feeling. Unfortunately, many hold on to that idea that circulation will not do a good enough job handing those rare reference transactions. This is their biggest fear, whether said out loud or not. The truth is, they could be right. We definitely do not have the years of expertise most reference librarians bring to the desk. How can we compete with Suzy Reference who has worked as a reference librarian for 20 years and knows the collection like the back of her hand? We can’t.
So, we have a new desk, with staff who are not reference librarians performing general reference, who do not have the same skills/abilities as the reference librarians, what do we do? Why we train them, of course. Practice makes perfect, right. I believe Suzy Reference was a novice 20 years ago and figured it out as she went along. This is the same thing. The reference librarians who are feeling disjointed need to take the initiative to keep the lines of communication open and offer their expertise on a regular basis. So, Suzy Reference is now Suzy Research or Suzy Expert who can help when needed for more in-depth questions as well as keeping our skills sharp. Circulation is absolutely willing and able to take on this additional responsibility. If reference would just accept the fact that no, the new desk will not have the level of research expertise that was available at the reference desk and that is okay, things will go much smoother.
I think the combined desk trend has some pitfalls because so many librarians and staff are hesitant to accept change. They certainly are not happy with the disappearance of a once central service in the library. They are also not happy with no longer participating on a service desk. I completely understand that feeling. However, their time is valuable and wasting it on a service desk that no longer needs them is just sad. So, to have a successful combined desk you need handle the whole reference problem. If you don’t like the terms disappear or disolve, how about these from Thesaurus.com:
I guess I did spray it. Oh well.