Mobile Reference

Imagine that you are a sporadic library user. Maybe once a month you will venture in. You have been showed how to use an online catalog four times already, but you still aren’t quite sure how to find a book because the website seems to look different everytime you try it for yourself. Or you just never seem successful. You know that lady at the desk is the one that has showed you how to use the catalog four times already and you just don’t want to bother her a fifth time, she looks busy.


What about the fact that the $.10 copies seem to be costing $.40 but the person staffing that big information desk has been helping that kid with her homework for fifteen minutes so far, and so you will just keep paying the extra money and get frustrated.


Where on earth is 917.2? I mean, the end of this shelf is 845.9, so I have to be close… right???

The library is filled with situations that feel like barriers to users. No matter the good intentions of library staff, the library is still hard for many people to navigate. For several years some libraries have been tackling this issue by having staff do their reference work away from a reference desk. Take it to the people! It started with laptops and little moving carts. I used to make fun of those, honestly. I don’t know why, it just made staff look a little displaced–ike the library management just took away their big desk and now they are being forced to zone out at their laptop, just while standing, at a little desk. Unfair assumption, but I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Then the iPad came along and some creative library folks turned this tool into a mini ref desk computer and hit the stacks seeking out patrons in distress. I was not one of these early adopters, honestly. I was even given a tool and never gave it the time or placed the value it could provide by implementing mobile reference. Well.. then I got a new job, and long behold the library was already doing it! They were doing it really well, too. Focusing on the people, and not the tool, training all staff how to use the tool, providing tips for being approachable and helpful versus salesman-like and pushy, and providing help when and how patrons really needed it.

This past week I did my first few hours of mobile reference and really enjoyed it. I helped people find books, assisted with computer questions, unjammed copiers, provided directional assitance, picked up trash, straightened shelves, kicked a solicitor out of the lobby, and cleared my mind. 

I have reflected on the error of my previous assumptions. I kind of just assumed in my past that I just didn’t have enough staff to really pull off mobile reference. I now see this wasn’t the case. There is never a second person at the information desk, this mobile person is literally the support person, out on the floor.  The other reason I think this is working so well is that it was rolled out and enforced. A culture shift took place. Everyone covers mobile reference shifts (circ / reference / children’s — it doesn’t matter what your home base is). It is also a service that is consistent and available every open hour.

Mobile reference is only as good as staff makes it. There are a lot of ways to cut corners (hide out in the stacks, get discouraged with a poor interaction and give up, play with apps instead of seeking out ways of being helpful). I see how useful it can be for breaking out of library molds that we tend to put ourselves in, however.