This question is from a Kind Reader. It was more specific, but I’m trying to disguise the identity, so I’m trying to make it completely general.
Lots of libraries, both public and academic, have their public service staff share a desk, so that library patrons go to one spot to check out books, ask reference questions, complain about jammed printers, and whatever else it is that library patrons do.
From the public’s perspective this does two things. It makes it easier to find the service location, since there’s only the one. And it erases the distinction between the “professional” librarians and everyone else.
The second one probably isn’t that important to most of the patrons, at least as far as they know, because to them everyone who works in a library is a librarian.
Or perhaps worse. I’ve heard of librarians and other library workers being asked if they’re volunteers, and of patrons being surprised when told that people actually get paid to sit at a desk and answer stupid questions like that.
From the librarian perspective, there’s sometimes a combination of pride coupled with a fear of redundancy about keeping the professional / nonprofessional distinction intact. After all, if some mere library worker can do everything the professionals can do, that hardly justifies the exorbitant salaries the librarians make.
No, that must have been a different profession I was thinking of. Nevertheless, the librarians usually do make more than the other library workers and, in academic libraries at least, have more autonomy over their work.
Thus, the librarians have perfectly good selfish reasons to maintain distinctions.
Before I said that as far as they know the distinction between librarians and everyone else isn’t that important to patrons, but in many instances it should be, because supposedly there are reference questions that reference librarians could answer that circulation staff could not.
It appears that in some of the libraries where everyone shares a service point, the distinctions between types of questions isn’t well done, and questions end up being answered inappropriately by people who don’t know there are better answers.
The question for readers is, how do libraries who handle this distinction well make sure the right questions go to the right people? Because at at least one library, it’s not happening.
My preferred method would be for the professional librarians to stand at the ready when any patrons approach the desk and say, “I’m a real librarian! Do you have a difficult question? If so, ask me! And definitely not that person over there who definitely isn’t a real librarian!”
However, I’ve been told that solution is offensive to both library workers and patrons, so maybe it’s not the best approach.
I suppose there could also be extensive training of library workers to teach them which are reference questions that really do need librarians, and which aren’t, but given the variety of questions it seems like it would quickly devolve into people talking about known knowns and unknown unknowns and pretty soon everyone would start to sound like Donald Rumsfeld, and that’s not good for anyone.
But there must be libraries out there who do this sort of thing well without offending anyone or sounding like Donald Rumsfeld. So how do they do it?
On the other hand, maybe the trend is such that real librarians won’t be needed anymore. How many questions are left that it takes a year or two working on an MLS to answer? Probably not that many.