Christmas came early at the reference desk! The desk has finally been remodeled to make our presence in the Scholars’ Commons a little more welcoming and approachable. Gone are the days of patrons awkwardly towering above us or shouting for more staples from behind the printing bar! The taller counter and chairs accommodate for sitting or standing at eye level with patrons, and we can easily rotate the computer monitors toward them. It’s also easier to relinquish the keyboard and walk around to the other side, putting the patron in control of learning and discovering library tools. While the new desk has improved on a practical level, it’s also symbolic of our relationship to patrons–we’re on the same level. In the past, reference librarians were seen as “experts” responsible for retrieving the best and correct answer for the patron. However, this is problematic for a number of reasons as it relies on the librarian’s privileged assumptions and biases. Instead, we strive to guide and empower patrons, listening to their needs and helping them meet those needs.
But, the new desk doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of getting patrons to come to us at all. For the past few years, libraries across the country have been reevaluating the traditional reference desk and coming up with innovative ways to best serve patrons’ needs. Norwich University adopted a similar service point in 2011 that included seating for patrons for extended questions and research help (Ahlers & Steiner, 2012). Other libraries have introduced even more radical strategies, such as the “Help Zone” at the University of New South Wales. With no reference desk at all, this “one-stop shopping” experience seems a little more like a supermarket, but it does allow patrons to go to one prominent place for a variety of questions, and encourages patrons to learn and discover on their own, with staff serving as guides instead of experts (Fletcher, 2011). While I was working in the Reference department during undergrad at the University of Louisville, their main library also opted to demolish the desk and switched instead to a consultation model. Here, patrons could walk in and sit with a librarian or reference assistant for in-depth help. Not only did the new model cut down on the directional questions we were constantly getting at the reference desk (my particular favorite being, “Where’s the stapler?”), but it also focused the purpose of the reference desk on individual research help.
While the consultation model worked well for a smaller institution, every university is different, and the reference desk should serve the unique needs of its campus. At Wells, I think the most important reason for retaining a physical reference desk is visibility and approachability. Wells can seem like a giant, impenetrable tower meant to confuse and bewilder freshman, as well as students who have been here for several years. Even if we’re answering simple questions like how to look up books in the catalog or showing people where the nearest water fountain is, it’s important to make the reference desk the place where anyone feels comfortable asking for help. Hopefully the new desk, along with the ever-helpful reference librarians and assistants who staff it, will contribute to creating a more welcoming environment. The more we as librarians can be seen and give students a positive experience with asking for help, the more likely they are to come back.