At the end of part 1, I promised to discuss benefits as well as a potential conflict that can emerge as both librarians and paralibrarians assume new roles and responsibilities in the library.
Let’s talk about the trend of replacing librarians with paralibrarians at the reference desk, or of merging reference and circulation desks into a single service desk or information desk in the library.
I think this is a good thing, because I think reference librarians have been largely misused and underemployed at the reference desk.
In a recent article (Arnason & Riemer 2012), the authors categorized over 6,000 public library service interactions. They found that only 25% involved finding information and materials at all. Technology help was the leading category with 31%, with circulation, membership (card status), directional, and procedural questions also accounting for significant percentages. Of the 25% that were information questions, the proportion representing complex research, as opposed to finding known items and basic information, isn’t known. Still the overall impression is that a substantial majority of the requests don’t require an advanced knowledge of resources and search techniques.
The same authors also quote another study (Ryan 2008) that concluded that 89% of interactions analyzed could be handled by staff without Master’s degrees or equivalent knowledge.
I have substantial, empirical, albeit unsystematic, evidence to support this view. Every time I teach our “Information Sources and Services” course, I send students out to visit a library of any type, observe the reference / service operation, and interview a public services manager or reference librarian. With few exceptions, the students report that the predominant service interactions fall into the categories mentioned above. Infrequently do they happen to observe a complex information request or an in-depth interview.
So it seems to me that it makes a lot of sense to redeploy librarians while maintaining essential services with well-trained, service-oriented paralibrarians.
Unfortunately, sometimes negative reactions to this change take hold among both librarians and paralibrarians. The librarians may feel they are being forced out in a short-sighted cost-cutting maneuver, while paralibrarian may feel they’re being asked to do the work of librarians without equitable pay and status.
If the change is made without a positive vision, then the conditions are created for these reactions to flourish. However, I think the embedded model provides a vision of better utilization of all staff, librarians and paralibrarians alike. The embedded role offers librarians the opportunity to fully apply the information retrieval, analysis, and management skills they went to school for, while affording the paralibrarians the opportunity to really take charge of the front line service operation.
Seems like a win for everybody… including the folks who need the information and the capabilities that librarians and paralibrarians bring to the organization!
Reference: Arnason, H., Reimer, L. (2012) Analyzing Public Library Service Interactions to Improve Public Library Customer Service and Technology Systems. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 7(1), 22-40.
p.s. In part 3, I’ll offer some thoughts in response to the question, “but what will happen to the complex questions that library users do bring to the reference/information desk?”