Reference traffic vs. reference questions

It’s hard to compare the experience of working the reference desk at my current job with the experience at MFPOW, the NCSU Libraries. Just trying to explain one to the other is hard, as I’ve discovered in talking with my co-workers here.

At Saint Mary’s, we have one person on the desk at a time, no Saturday hours (except during finals, which is when I’m writing this post), all the people who staff the desk are MLS librarians, and we’re pretty flexible about leaving the desk unstaffed for brief periods if someone needs to be away.  At NCSU, there were at least two people on the desk at any given time, plus one person on backup, plus one person handling email and chat (and sometimes the phone) in a separate location; the desk was staffed by MLS librarians, paraprofessional staff, grad students, and undergrads; it’s now staffed 24 hours a day thanks to the hard work of my friend Jennifer Calvo; and we were really vigilant about always keeping it staffed.

But the most interesting difference has been the difference between reference traffic and reference questions.  At NCSU, we almost always had traffic; it’s why we had two or more people on the desk at once.  But I can’t begin to describe to you how much of that traffic concerned the excruciatingly complex nuances of printing, photocopying, and paying for same.*  We also got our fair share of “how do I read the files on my flash drive?” “how do I print Powerpoint slides six to a page?” and “where’s the bathroom?”** of course.  Not to mention the classic “I need three scholarly articles on my topic for a paper that’s due tomorrow, and can they please all be online, and I’ve never heard of a periodical index or database before, and my cell phone is going to go off in the middle of our conversation.”  Tons of those. I honed my five-minute BI session on finding articles to a fine art while at that job.

What we rarely got were actual reference questions.  And that’s what we do get here at Saint Mary’s.  Oh sure, we get plenty of the other kinds of questions (not so much about the bathroom, though) and we spend plenty of time troubleshooting various technology (ask me about printing double-sided from a Mac, go on, I dare you!) but we get a startling number of actual reference questions.  Some examples:

Yesterday I got asked which Western industrialized nations had universal health care.  (Flippant answer: “all of them but us!”  Turns out to be pretty much true.)

A student asked for books about the KKK; after talking with her a bit, I found her some books but also recommended the article on the KKK in the Encyclopedia of Racism in the United States, with which she was delighted. I never once saw an NCSU student happy to be directed to a reference book, and most wouldn’t consult them no matter how hard we tried.

Over IM, I got asked for articles about a particular philosophical theory and a contemporary romantic comedy film.  After a little explaining that it was unlikely that the student was actually going to find an article on that topic (the “improbable source” problem), we realized that really she just needed to understand the theory, so I suggested the article in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy on the philosopher, and the article in Magill’s World Philosophy: Essay-Reviews of 225 Major Works on the theory, as well as an article in the apparently free, online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

None of these were anything like 99% of the questions I got asked at the NCSU Libraries.  In fact, just in my first semester on the reference desk here at Saint Mary’s, I was asked more real reference questions than in two years at NCSU.  And that’s with many fewer total questions to start with.

I don’t know what this says about the differences between a large, land-grant, technical and agricultural university and a small, Catholic, women’s liberal arts college, but it sure is interesting.

*To be fair, my time at the NCSU Libraries predated the Learning Commons, and I’m not sure how many of the issues with printing and photocopying have been made simpler in the Commons.  But Holy Black Text On White Paper, Batman, it was mind-bendingly complex when I was there.

**Though oddly enough, when we moved the reference desk to a place where the location of the bathroom was much harder to describe, we almost completely stopped getting asked where it was.  Freaky.  I do wonder how often they get asked that question now in the Learning Commons.