Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Dear Annoyed Librarian #12: The Future of Reference

Dear AL,

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?


Suddenly Cloudy


Dear Cloudy,

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.

I would also like to note that your coworker seems particularly devious and cunning. You should definitely befriend her and learn all you can in the years before she retires to the old librarians home. At your age, skills and talent may seem like they will pull you through, but eventually you'll need age and guile after you are completely burned out, which you will be from years of sitting at the reference desk clearing printer jams and telling people where the restrooms are.

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


Anonymous said...

I recommended to our School Board that the cafeteria use trained monkeys to move these big racks of dishes through the carwash-sized dishwashers. Oddly, this was not well-received. Damn anti-intraspecies lobbyists!

Cloudy need a side business, like selling porn pay site passwords for $1--like kindly old Mrs. Van Heffelin before she went to visit her sister upstate.


Anonymous said...

ooops, I intra'd when I meant inter...

poor library student said...

Rumor has it that Colorado State University has eliminated their Reference desk and only does reference by appoinment now. Does anyone out there know anything about this? Is this a trend happening elsewhere?

Anonymous said...

You know, I don't think most people know what a reference librarian can do. Before I got into library school, I thought the village idiots checking out books were the librarians (yeah, I was a moron). Now I call the reference desk from my cell phone all the time. I bet they appreciate that!

Anonymous said...

Librarians tend to do a better job at educating their patrons while on the reference desk. They know more about the structure of knowledge and how each researcher can use it to his/her advantage. Librarians can have ongoing discussions with researchers about new knowledge in the researchers' fields.

Librarians know the types of information available and more often know where to look.

Librarians know titles. I wanted to use the Virtual News Library the other day, and the paraprofessional looked at me funny and said, "oh, we never use that." After some prodding, she found something on the internet called Virtual Reference Library. A librarian would know the difference. It took me about 20 minutes to explain these two titles to a team of clueless and panicky paraprofessionals at a reference desk the other day.

Overall, the librarian applies information and technology to solve human problems.

A non-librarian at the desk will rarely be able to do this.

Anonymous said...

As long as there are still people in the United States who DO NOT know where NYC is or how to obtain a cup of blood from a Vampire Club by emailing them, then reference librarians will always be in demand.

Btw, sitting at a reference desk can mean a lot of things. For instance, if you work at a slow, perhaps, rural library, then you'll be sitting on your arse a lot. However, if you work in large urban public library or an academic library with lots of resident students, then chances are you will be doing a lot of foot work. Also, keep in mind, and it wasn't mentioned in AL's post, but some reference librarians only spend a few hours a day on the actual desk. The rest of the time is spent at another desk trying to come up with reference related projects.


AL said...

I prefer to spend all of my time at the reference desk chatting with colleagues and doing my nails. Whenever I see someone coming who might have a question, I just pick up the phone, pretend I'm listening, and hold up my hand and mouth "Be with you in a minute" to the patron. That's usually enough to get them to go away.

Privateer6 said...

I have mixed emotions about reference. On one had, a trained monkey could handle the bulk of the question. I remember taking the reference in school and it was a joke, 95% of the course I learned in elementary and high school. And that 5% was what's up on the 'net. A good, trained parapro can handle the bulk of these questions. I've seent his at the public library my wife worked at; part time parapros worked the reference desk.

However there will be questions that will tax the parapro and a librarian will be needed to take over. One patron during my internship completely stumped me and I needed to get one of the archivists to help out.

I do not know how it is set up at other places, but at the academic library I worked there was no established reference librarian; all the professionals and selected interns worked the desk at some point during the week. The reference computer was networked so that you had access to all of your files, and you worked on your assignments while doing refernce.

Anonymous said...

Ho, ho, ho. As a former tech services librarian who morphed into a high school librarian, the tables are turned, eh? For years, the techies were ridiculed as poor relations compared to the reference folks.

But, on the really bright side from the land called, Ohio: there have been reference librarians who have been sighted actually circulating through one particular library seeking out those lost and confused souls desperate for information! Cross my heart and hope to die.

In addition, I have seen the same customer service attitude in Denver. All is not lost.

On the other side, though, one particular library system has decided to put paraprofessionals at the reference desk. The circ supervisior circulates. (how appropriate) During one of my hormonal mood swings, I told him flat out that if I couldn't find what I was looking for, I should turn in my MLS. Needless to say, he now stays out of my way. (grin)

Thus, the profession has been sabotaged in some instances by management seeking to reduce staff budgets. Shame on them!


Bunny Watson said...

Anonymous at 8:11 said:there have been reference librarians who have been sighted actually circulating through one particular library seeking out those lost and confused souls desperate for information! Cross my heart and hope to die.
God save me from any library I work at that implements this policy. I believe you - my library school alma mater was thinking of doing the very same thing, only the librarians were expected to wear little microphones and earpieces for some reason. I am not a clerk at Old Navy, thank you very much. If a college student isn't adult enough to come and ask me when they have a question, they don't deserve to get an answer.

Sharon said...

I *SO* wish I had found this blog last year, before I got myself so far into the deep end of the library pool.

My goal was to become a reference librarian, with Bunny Watson (not the one in the comments section here, but the one in the film) as my role model. But after a year of staffing the tech support desk for the staff and public computer users, and explaining for the umpteenth time how to release a print job from the print release station, and overhearing what goes on at the Reference Desk, which is to my immediate left, I can see that the level of questions they get is not all that different from the level of questions I get. The big difference is that I make $12/hr and they make more than twice that. But I'm not entirely sure this, or that, is the best possible use of my remaining years.

So, AL, if your intention was to wave people away from a library career, you have probably succeeded with this reader.

AL said...

It's all part of my devious plot. The more people who don't become librarians, the greater the demand for my services and the higher my potential salary!

Sharon said...

Well, I don't mean to say that I'm going to get out the business altogether. I'm in too far into the degree, for one thing--assuming that I get passing grades this semester. But I'm definitely having second thoughts about public library work. I was deeply committed to it a year ago, but that's before I knew anything about it other than as a patron. Now I know too much. Maybe the corporate world wasnt that bad after all. Not in another cubicle--never again!--but maybe in a nice quiet corporate library, maybe for a science or engineering company, or for a law library...that doesn't sound so bad.

Anonymous said...

The more people who don't become librarians, the greater the demand for my services and the higher my potential salary!

So let me see if I've got this straight. Being a librarian sucks because the pay is low, the patrons and co-workers are demanding jerks, the ALA exists for the sole purpose of advancing its own agendas--not those of the average librarian, and no one new should enter the profession in order to allow you to stay in it.

AL, have you ever heard of voting with your feet? People do it in the corporate world all the time.

AL said...

Voting with my feet? No. Never heard of that. Very clever. I'll have to remember it.

Anonymous said...

After 10 years as a reference librarian in a well-supported large public library, I want out. Any ideas on how to translate the MLS and 10 years of customer service into another career (as well-paid)? Seems most jobs I qualify for pay half as much and require only a high-school diploma!! If only I hadn't discovered libraries before Google, I wouldn't have been lured into the profession. Now I'm bored out of my mind! Unless you want to manage personnel or develop programs like videogaming for teens to occupy your mind and time (and these jobs too may decline in number and/or in educational requirements/pay), I'd say it will be easier for you to change your educational goals now than to go back to school later.

It's harder to go back to school or change jobs when you are used to earning more money than you are worth. This is why I feel bad for downsized union workers. No one willingly takes a cut in pay/lifestyle. But sometimes we are forced. It's the nature of economics.

By the way: People won't make appointments with us for information. We are a meet my need on demand society. If we offer our services online, they will come. But how many sources do we need for online help? Not each local library (at least not for in depth reference other than local history/genealogy). If I could wait for information, I'd make online appointments with Harvard U. professors/librarians in the topic of interest.

So this is how I see it:

Local public libraries: one or two skilled MLS librarians with focus on genealogy/history; all other help provided by paraprofessionals.

Universities: Librarians with Ph.D.s.

A national consortium of online reference staffed by the above.

Not a lot of job growth, except in the way of paraprofessionals. And you can probably pay them less. Hire part-time moms who love kids and libraries.

Emily said...

Dear Annoyed Librarian,

I am 40 and have struggled with unemployment and underemployment since I got my MLS degree in 1990. When I look outside the profession for jobs, I qualify for only $10 hour positions. I am thinking of going back to school to get a more marketable degree. What do you recommend, in terms of something that would complement the MLS? Was thinking of Marketing, but those jobs tend to be very competitive and low paying as well. Would love to receive career advice from those who have transitioned out.



Anonymous said...

I don't think Academic Librarians need a Ph.D. to be a librarian. What is there to research,teach in a library? A little Bib?

Why would you want to get a Ph.D. to work in a library?

Anonymous said...

Reference Desk at The University of Illinois Springfield....

The reference desk at UIS was merged with the circulation desk.
There is no reference area. There is a big sign at the circulation desk that says "Information".

Printing machines were put in the reference area.
I guess they did not know how to maintain statistics.

AngelaB said...

I am new to your site, and you are wonderful. Finally, someone telling it like it is! I worked retail all through college and was amazed that my retail experience rather than my masters degree better prepared me for my life as a public librarian. Sad but true.