Solving Problems: The Reference Desk

Track D today is all about solving problems, and it featured how librarians in various environments have addressed some of the problems they have faced.  I sat in on the morning sessions on The Reference Desk, and (that perennial problem) Money (covered in a separate blog post).

The death of reference has been widely forecast for a while, but some libraries have found innovative ways to not only stave off its death, but to make it successful.  Yale University Library has begun using text messaging to deliver reference services and has found it to be quite successful.  According to Joe Murphy, General Science Librarian, text messaging is not just a communication service any more, but it’s a way to search for and share information.  It lets users get information wherever they are and thus allows remote users of the library to avail themselves of reference service.  The millennial generation has become addicted to text messaging because it is so easy and allows them to be constantly connected.  Murphy says that text messaging is perfect for reference because:

  • It is always at the point of need.
  • It enhances traditional services.
  • It extends the reach of services.
  • It opens up possibilities for new services.

Murphy has not found any viable web-based text messaging services yet, so he has produced an instruction book for librarians and users of the service.

Maui Community College faced a different problem:  the complete loss of library services because of building construction.  The librarians were moved to an office in an obscure campus building, so they used networking technologies such as Facebook, instant messaging, blogs, and contact widgets on their website to fill in the gap.  Ellen Peterson, Public Services Librarian, said that to be successful, technology must be scalable.  It must remove as many barriers to users as possible.  She thinks that text messaging is an increasingly important medium for information transfer and, because of the proliferation of mobile devices, is rapidly becoming the dominant point of access to the web.

View Ellen’s complete presentation here.

The new Darien, CT public library building (which opens in January) will not have any reference desks.  Instead, librarians will be roving around and using IM (instant messaging) to receive requests from users.  Kate Sheehan pointed out that in public libraries, people just want fast information and answers to questions.  The traditional model of the library as a gatekeeper is too far removed from people’s needs.  Kate suggested that the answer to keeping reference alive is to get into the user’s shoes and understand their needs.  Create a community, and then use the library to collaborate.

People are now using virtual reference in a different way than previously.  Now, they are browsing and doing more preliminary research.  Many of the questions are variations on the theme, "What do you have?"  Kate thinks that in the future, virtual reference will become like someone standing in front of you and will be one of the standard ways to communicate.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and IL 2008 Blog Coordinator

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