Blow up the Reference Desk?

By Tom Peters |

Earth Day has been around for 40 years now, but none of those 40 days have been particularly memorable for me.  It's just functioned as an annual nudge to think a little more concertedly than usual about the general state of the environment and the flat-footed oversized state of my sole – my carbon footprint.  On Earth Day this year, however, I attended PALS Day in Moline, Illinois, sponsored by the Prairie Area Library System, and heard a memorable talk by Tracie Hall, a librarian from GoodSeed Consulting.  Although Hall mentioned Earth Day in passing, her talk focused on the ecological health of libraries and community-based, transformational organizations.  Her conclusion:  Libraries are in trouble and need to change. 

The title of her talk was “May I Please Blow Up This Reference Desk?”  As I listened to her incendiary yet polite and funny comments, I realized I had found a sympatico ordnance engineer on a mission to find a green way to blow up the reference desk.

For Tracie (and for me), the reference desk – a centralized, ensconced, over-engineered, often lavish bunker – has become a symbol of all that is wrong with library services.  It begins with the wrong “power” message.  The reference librarian sits like a king or queen while the peon patron deferentially stands before the reference cathedral.  We understand reference service as being all about transactions.  We even call and count them as reference transactions.  One of Tracie's main points is that libraries need to evolve from transactional organizations to transformational ones.  Rather than sit behind the reference desk and point (or, worse yet, toil away in obscurity down in the tech services bunker, traditionally located in the basement of the library), librarians need to stand up, move around, adopt and use mobile information technologies and help library users have transformational information experiences (TIE).  Tracie didn't attempt to define a TIE, but I have a vague sense that it is an info experience that leads to a major jump in understanding that may result in new endeavors or directions in an individual's life.   

Tracie said that library services need to evolve from their current transactional lower forms (answer the questions, checkout the materials, reshelve the books) to higher transformational service forms, which focus on transformation, customization, and the customer experience.  Tracie suggested that libraries need to become teaching/demonstration sites for information technology.  We need to get out of our comfort zone, which is also a dead zone, because it has lulled us into complacency.  We also need to cast a keen, critical eye on our policies and procedures, which often inhibit the formation of transformational information experiences.  As Tracie put it, we need to choose relationships over rules, people over power. 

It was an inspiring talk.  While Tracie focused on the library as a physical place, I've been thinking about how we can “blow up real good” the reference desk and our “mind-forged manacles” (from William Blake's poem, London) in the online space.  As we try to re-imagine library reference services for users of mobile phones and other always-connected portable devices, we need to blow up all our ref desk ideas.  Blow up the schedule and have a cloud of librarians engaging in transformational reference interactions with library users throughout the day from multiple locations.  Blow up the great chain of reference question being that implies that research questions are a higher order of need than directional questions, and that implies that requests for advice and opinions are beneath professional librarians and best consigned to hellish oblivion. 

Mike Shatzkin, a publishing consultant and futurist I've been following (not literally) with interest, wants to blow up publishing.  His thoughtful “Shatzkin Files” blog posts ( rarely mention libraries, but his April 27th post about what he would have said at his talk in London had his flight not been canceled because that Icelandic volcano “done blowed up real good” provides further ammunition that libraries need to radically rethink services and how they project themselves as institutions.  Shatzkin wrote that “A consumer 20 years ago couldn't read good writing and watch videos all day about whatever is their favorite subject for free unless they went to a library, where access would be bureacratic [sic] and cumbersome.  A consumer with a web connection today surely can.”  Bureaucratic and cumbersome were the two words he chose to describe library access to information – ouch. 

We need to blow up the ref desk and all the other organizational baggage that has engendered the current bureaucratic bunker mentality that is alienating many users.  Then we need to walk about, listen to what our users want and need, and begin working with them side-by-side to create transformational information experiences.