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What’s so special about reference librarians?

April 3, 2014

Recently, my closest friend from my undergraduate days contacted me with an interesting question.  She asked “If you were going to hire a reference librarian who did not have any actual librarian experience, what skills would that person have to have for you to even consider sitting down to talk to the person?  Especially if it were a small town public library within a large county library system?”

For me, this is a very tough question – the librarians at my college have faculty rank, so they must have accredited MLS degrees.  I couldn’t even consider hiring a librarian who isn’t a professional, degreed librarian.

But perhaps other libraries may not be so rigid in defining reference librarians, so I started to think about the needed attributes:  significant organizational skills, the ability to be frequently interrupted and still complete tasks on schedule, well-developed interpersonal skills for dealing with some truly odd questions, persistence in locating obscure sources, knowledge of various citation styles, the ability to elicit sufficient information to get to the true information need, the ability to assist in collection development of reference sources, a sufficient technology comfort level for chat/text/IM reference, the technology skills for database set-up, maintenance, troubleshooting and training, and on and on and on.  There really are quite a few skills needed, and I guess that’s why we have degrees in library science.

This exchange, an exercise in imagination really, led me to think about why all of those skills are necessary – and it led me to wonder how necessary the degree is compared to the skills.  Many academic libraries have successfully trained students to staff the reference desk; sometimes these are graduate students, and sometimes they are undergrads, but in all cases, they are perceived as peers and thus are less intimidating than librarians (or at least that’s how the theory goes…)

My library happens to employ quite a few undergraduates who intend to go on for an MLS degree – why couldn’t they help to staff the reference desk?  They could certainly answer all of the directional questions, they’re more than capable of unjamming the printers, they know as much about the library’s website as our librarians do, and they could be very effective at doing reference “triage” and then referring students to librarians when needed.  With appropriate training, our undergraduate students could become a valuable bridge between the research-panicked 18-22 year old student and a professional librarian.

That could create a win-win-win situation.  The reference desk student would gain valuable experience, the student patron would receive the help they need, and the librarians devote time to other projects until their expertise is needed.  I’m in a tricky position, where we have to be clear about who is a librarian (and thus a faculty member) and who is a library technician (and thus not a faculty member), but maybe it’s time to consider the possibilities of giving our librarians-to-be some additional responsibilities – and opportunities.

Are you’re successfully staffing your reference desk with student employees?  Please share!

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