Reference is Dead: A Peer Research Assistant Program
The classic reference interaction with patrons is all but a thing of the past. At our institution, the reference desk itself disappeared altogether five years ago, with reference shifting to an on-call model. This ghosting of the reference desk and its affiliated service was ushered in by a sudden influx of new furniture and technology brought in to “dress up” the library’s drab first floor, but was likewise buoyed by dwindling reference statistics and overburdened staff. Due to various factors (librarians’ lack of visibility, perceived indifference from students and faculty, the so-called “information literate” millennial generation), reference statistics sunk to an all-time low over the subsequent years. Thus, we decided two things: 1) bring back the reference desk, and 2) staff it (primarily) with student workers. Hearing of similar services being introduced at fellow Oberlin Group college libraries and beyond, we moved forward with piloting a program where we hired and trained a small staff of work-study eligible student workers to serve as the first point of contact in the reference interaction while staffing the reference desk. The rationale for this, in part, was data supporting the notion of “librarian fear” or “library anxiety,” coinciding with our belief that students are more likely to seek help or advice from other students—their peers—than they are from a librarian. This session will articulate our experience introducing this service – from the impact on our statistics, to the best practices, pitfalls, and lessons learned that we incorporated for the coming academic year.