People conducting research in libraries are less mobile than they once were. Not only do they have their papers, library items, and a coffee carefully positioned, they also often have a laptop, a phone, and a music device on display as well.” Aaron Schmidt, Revaming Reference – The User Experience.

When I read that sentence, I was struck dumb. Holy mother of Xenu! You’re right! When I’m at the reference desk or when I look around the reading room, I see nothing but students on laptops. It’s so normal that I never give it a second thought. So why should I think that these students are going to get up from their seat to spend 5-10 minutes with a librarian while their precious hardware is sitting unattended? NYTimes recently warned of the perils of leaving your tech unattended in public spaces and academic libraries are not immune to theft (as the campus police reports constantly remind me).

Ok. So I’ve finally realized something that is completely obvious. Schmidt goes on to talk about the social awareness needed to understand when a patron can be approached in the spirit of “proactive reference,” how reference desks can be reshaped and roaming models rethought. At one point, he quotes Martha Flotten, a Multnomah County librarian who claims to have “mind-blowing reference transactions weekly.”

Again, I was struck. I want this.

So let’s work this out. Embedded reference. Blended reference. Roaming reference. We’ve all heard these terms before. But what are the strategies that make these concepts work? Here are a few ideas:

  1. The Latte Librarian approach. Do you know where the engineering graduate students go for coffee between labs? Why not set up office hours there? Get in touch with the graduate coordinator for the department and make sure they pass the word along. See also Some Librarian.
  2. The Tablet Librarian approach. Get a tablet and roam the reading rooms,  study halls, and collaborative work spaces where students get things done. If you have to, wear a shirt that says “Free Librarian” (or wear a bow tie). Use your social insight to find students who need a helping hand. Great waiters/waitresses know when you need their help and when to leave you alone. Channel your inner waitress.
  3. The Celebrity Librarian approach. Build a brand around 1 or 2 of your most charismatic reference librarians. Set them up with Foursquare and location-based social programs and get the word out about their movements. Let students follow them. Make it game (I have a Waldo costume on stand-by). Patrons may be more inclined to seek out a librarian if they know one is nearby.
  4. The Student Librarian approach. Work with indiviudal students to create [paid] library ambassadors that extend reference services into particular dorms, schools, buildings, or other campus locales. Build in them strong research skills and train them how to teach these skills to others. MPOW will begin a similar program in the fall.
  5. The Librarian-For-Hire approach. Reach out to student government groups, Greek societies, and professional societies within the university system and offer your services. Go to their meetings and talk with the leaders of those organizations. I’m sure that the local political societies would love to have a seminar on finding resources for their various campaigns. It may require teaching some classes outside the normal hours, but it’s a connection to students who are really passionate about a subject.

The central theme of all these approaches is location. Meet the students where they are and stop expecting them to come to you. You can do this by making small changes. Instead of having office hours in your office, have them in a public space. Instead of standing behind the reference desk, stand/lean/walk-around in front of it. Visibly express your availability and eagerness. Stop being afraid of intruding.

These are just a few ideas for revamping your reference service and getting you out from behind the desk. Maybe they will work for. Maybe not. Maybe they will just be excuses for you to procure special project funding and find an excuse to drink more coffee (or buy an iPad). But the need for human mediation in the information search/evaluation/use process will never disappear, no matter what the deathers claim. We just need to be more proactive in finding gentler ways of making that first contact.

How has your library tried to revamp reference and reach out to students where they are? What has worked for you? What hasn’t worked?

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