Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Telling the Pros from the Nonpros

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.



  1. The public library I worked at was very good at making this distinction. They started by having the circulation desk separated from the reference desk so there was a clear delineation there. At that library circulation staff were the most likely non-librarian-librarian point of contact with the public. They also trained staff on the difference between reference questions and everything else and were very good about following up when someone went rogue (which was rare).

    The result was a clear and easy workflow where people were referred to the reference desk when they had a question that needed to be handled by one of the reference librarians. It removed a burden from the paraprofessional staff as they could just point to the ref desk.

    As with most “problems” I encountered working in libraries it ultimately boiled down to dedicating some time and training to the problem.

  2. Bonegirl06 says:

    At my academic library, we have a separate circ desk and help desk. All questions having to do with research or anything like finding books and articles is automatically directed to the librarians. Staff at the circ desk are often intermediaries between librarians and patrons.

  3. At my library we *gasp* have paraprofessionals working the Reference desk. The only librarian’s in our library are the manager’s of each department. If there is an involved reference question that they cannot answer they refer it to me.

    I also have a fancy office so patrons know I mean business and it makes me feel more special than I really am. That way we all win.

  4. that loudmouth says:

    my local barnes & noble has a checkout area (circulation) and an information kiosk (reference). they probably borrowed that setup from libraries.

    oh, wait. that’s how walmart does it, too.

    in retail, the two-desk approach does separate the functions, but doesn’t naturally create a distinction between the level of staff I expect to encounter. they’re all b&n clerks or walmart associates.

    the store manager probably has a title on that nametag. maybe Librarians should put the master’s degree on the nametag.

    or maybe the distinction could be implied by the uniform. can we find a library equivalent to the doctor’s labcoat-over-scrubs ensemble that distinguishes the doc from the nurse in just-scrubs?

    • To be honest I would prefer a judges robe. Maybe with an 18th century judges wig. Also, a gavel that I can bang when I want people to shut up. All the para’s can dress like bailiffs.

    • The Librarian With No Name says:

      I vote lab coat. After all, the degree is in Library SCIENCE. And as I think we all know, the arc of library fashion is long, and it bends towards scrubs. Or Snuggies, if we aren’t diligent with our dress code enforcement.

  5. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    Actually, in some cases, it’s the para-professional/clerical staff that are not being replaced. Instead, the MLS Librarians are being made to take on the duties that were once the domain of a clerk (and sometimes even shelvers). The bean counters look at the salaries, but also take into account the benefit packages. Benefits cost the same no matter what pay grade. You can make an entry level librarian take on extra duties while still getting the benefit of an MLS instead of perhaps a GED.

    On a side note, I do like “me”s idea of the dressing up. Though a few library leaders might let the concept go to their heads and demand trumpet fanfare and royal robes when they enter the main reading room.

  6. Sarah K says:

    Well, my system is one of those talking about eliminating staff desks altogether. This will solve the distinction problem completely: After all, it doesn’t matter which staff members are librarians if the patrons can’t find us!

  7. Allison says:

    We see it as having different areas of expertise. Circ staff place simple holds, but if the item needs to come through ILL, it becomes a reference question. Rule of thumb is that if something can’t be answered in 30 seconds, it’s reference.
    On the Reference side, we pass along to the circ staff several kinds of work: any questions about refunding lost and paid items, for example.
    In practice, we keep our ears open for each other at the combined desk, and jump in / switch questions as needed. (Just as the children’s librarian keeps her ears open when adult services staff get young patrons, or the technology librarian listens for tech questions).

  8. My library doesn’t really bother telling people who is a librarian or library assistant. People just get served by whomever is at their service desk. If the person needs to draw in assistance they do, and that can be because they are an LA who needs research help, or it could be that they are a librarian but this is a reader’s advisory enquiry and they know one of their colleagues is better on this genre, or it could be that they know more about Apples and the customer is using an Android. Reference is a team sport. Some of our library assistants have decades of experience and so they can give better results than a person with a degree who is new to our collection (particularly our e-resources).

    It does raise some issues (Why is my wife, who is an assistant, paid less than me, given that our daily tasks look similar on some days? for example) I suppose the difference is that I do more technical project work in my off-desk time (building our book club website, cataloguing our special needs collection, that sort of thing) and I’m kind of being paid to be the guy that people can tag in if a question’s tricky. The librarian’s also the one who is to blame if the building burns down, and who has to talk to the customer who is off his face on GHB, so there’s a premimum for being the person who is in charge in emergencies.

    The thing is, though, there are an awful lot of questions answered at the reference desks which are really simple, and I’m not sure you need to argue that a person with a degree is required to differentiate when typing stuff into Google is a perfectly fine way of finding an answer from when only cutting edge research skills will do. Our LAs are great, and our customers are really happy with them, even if they don’t have degrees.

    I’d like us to get a form of traditional garb. I’m Australian and under our tax law you can get “traditional dress” like a chef’s checked pants, back as a tax deduction. I asked if I could get tweed jackets last year and my accountant said “No.”

    (Note: not representing my employer.)

  9. My academic library has a single-service point model where the desk that we share is L-shaped, and the sign on the librarian side of the L is labeled “Research Help” and the sign on the other side is labeled “Check Out.” Sometimes students miss the fact that the side of the L that they are approaching is not the side that they need, but the circ staff is really good about saying “oh, for your question you need to step right over here to ‘Research Help'” and the Librarians will often have to say “you’re checking out? Okay, go right over to that side where it says ‘Check Out.'” The students are usually understanding and things go pretty smoothly.

  10. This has never really been an issue at the small (very short-staffed) academic library where I work. If the aide doesn’t know/can’t find the answer, they enlist the help of the librarian or library technician. Of course, it does help that we all wear name tags, clearly indicating our job titles, if people care to read them.

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