I am a recent MLS graduate and just took an entry level position at Sunny Beach State Library. While it is great to finally be a professional, I have noticed that most questions asked on desk could be answered by trained staff or students. I mentioned this to a coworker and she was shocked and advised me not to talk about that openly - that as long as the administration still believed they needed highly skilled knowledge workers our jobs were safe. While that might be OK for someone like her set to retire in a few years, what about those of us just starting out? Will there be a need for librarians on the reference desk?
First, congratulations on getting that exciting first job. Second, perhaps you are right to be discouraged.
It's true that most questions at the reference desk could be answered by a trained monkey. Don't get me wrong--it would have to be a very well trained monkey, and not just any old monkey pulled off the street. In my library we in fact have an exceptionally well trained monkey who takes care of our directional questions and also clears printer jams and such. He is also at least as well groomed as most of the professional staff, so the patrons hardly notice.
So you ask, will there be a need for librarians at the reference desk in the future? I ask, has there ever been a need for reference librarians at the reference desk? If reference librarians are the highly trained professionals many of them claim to be, doesn't it seem a little strange that a good part of their jobs is to just sit at a desk and wait for someone to come? Has that ever been a very effective use of librarian time? How convincing are you as a "highly trained knowledge worker" if a good part of your job is to just sit around on the off chance someone happens to have a question that needs your level of reference ability?
Can you think of any other examples of highly trained and knowledgeable consultants who just sit around waiting for questions? I can't. The only people I can think of who just sit around hoping someone comes up to them to justify their existence are retail clerks. Oh, and those people at the complaints desk in department stores, let's not forget them. Not very "professional," is it?
So sitting around at the reference desk is a big waste of time. But does that mean there isn't a need for reference librarians? I don't think so. Based on the people I help, it seems that as information grows more abundant finding and evaluating it requires more skill, but those skills aren't employed very effectively sitting at a desk just waiting for the occasional difficult question. We just do that out of habit. On the other hand, I could be wrong, and reference librarians may become obsolete. So go out there and create a market for your skills before you find yourself out of a job.
Okay, that's the end of my pep talk for today!
The Annoyed Librarian