The Future of Reference: Students Helping Students?



Circulation Desk, originally uploaded by qbfianchetto.

This week I participated in a discussion about the future of reference services in academic libraries. We talked about chat reference and how it has expanded the service we can provide. I think everybody was pretty much in agreement that it’s been a good thing for the service we provide for our users.

Then the issue of points of service came up which muddied the waters. The main issue seemed to be implementation – how would you go about doing it? For small branch libraries this doesn’t seem to be too difficult, but what about large central libraries with several different reference desks? How can you decide which areas shouldn’t get less service.

There’s also the issue of staffing. As budgets are slashed and people retire or positions are eliminated, who’s going to staff these reference desks? Librarians? Library techs? Students? How about all of the above?

I mentioned that at my library, we have our student employees sort of act as the first line of help. Somebody need help finding a book for a class? Do they know the title? Our student employees can easily show them how to look up a book in the catalog and locate the item on the shelf. Or the classic reference question, “Where’s the bathroom?” I know our students could answer that. It’s not to say that I as the reference librarian don’t want to take the time to answer these questions, but I feel comfortable letting our student workers handle them as they sit at the circ desk barcoding our entire collection. (Ahh, the joys of finally getting an ILS…)

This made one of the participants ask, “How do you know that the students won’t try to answer research questions?” You mean how do I know they won’t try to do my job? I don’t think they’d want to. Our students know how to find things in the catalog because we often need them to be able to locate the MARC records for our material (remember, we’re barcoding everything in our collection), but the finer points of research, such as subject searing, is not really their forte. That’s OK because that’s my job. It’s pretty great how as soon as the patron says a magic word, it varies, that our students know it’s time to say, “You should speak to our reference librarian…” and then I pop my head up like a prairie dog and get down to work.

Is this a common trend? How does it work at your academic library?

One thought on “The Future of Reference: Students Helping Students?

  1. This is a topic I covered for a paper last semester. Specifically, my paper focused on the proficiency and efficiency of questions being answered by professional librarians versus paraprofessionals and/or students. I worked in reference in undergrad. I sort of inherently knew when to pass “ the baton off “because of training from the librarian and serving in the same capacity as a library aide for 3 years. Lastly, just good hiring habits also had something to do with it.

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