Reference desk

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The reference desk was first designed about 100 years ago (Massey-Burzio, 1992) and has its origins in the idea initially presented by Samuel Green (1876) of the importance of providing ready access to patrons of one who could provide them with assistance. The image of the reference desk continues to change with the profession. However, many of the encounters that take place at the desk today seem remain the same as when the reference desk first originated. A description of the reference desk requires consideration of its purpose, staff, and the interactions it entails.


The importance of the desk is described by Pierson (1977) who says, “a good desk can make, if not, “all the difference,” a real difference…” He reflects on the image and function of the desk at that time and seems to suggest that the desk helps provide an image of professionalism. It is the place where patrons first encounter the reference librarian and it is here where the librarian keeps sources for ready reference. As a result numerous articles focus on describing the actual physical presentation or location of the desk. Morgan (1980) argues that the form of the desk is important, that a “counter” in contrast to a desk offers greater levels of approachability to patrons of the library. Others see reference transactions as similar to those taking place in a retail store, and suggest that the desk should be “packaged” in a way that would make "customers" feel more comfortable or welcome. The actual location of the desk in the library and how it affects service is also taken into consideration.(Larason & Schiek Robinson, 1984).


Besides just considering the physicality of the desk, it is important to think about its purpose, in some cases, the "reference desk" may not be an actual desk. Massey-Burzio (1992)suggests that a desk could be considered to be an impedance to library patrons seeking assistance, because it may not be clear to patrons who sits behind the desk or exactly what assistance can be rendered. The desk in this case could be considered to be sending mixed signals because library patrons may not be able to ascertain to whom they have spoken. One model attempting to address this has been the creation of a, “Research Consultation Service Office," where the professional librarians offer help; the desk itself is staffed by students who refer to the reference librarian as necessary. (Massey-Burzio, 1992). It is implied that this method more specifically allows patrons to know to whom they are speaking, in this case the reference desk is not technically the desk itself but it is the "Research Consultation Service Office".


With changes in technology, the role of the traditional reference desk continues to change as well. Ferguson and Bunge (1997) suggest that as library materials and users increasingly utilize the internet, there is also a need for reference services to go online, they describe a scenario of networked reference service. One possible iteration of the idea of networked reference service is proposed by Coffman and Saxton (1999) who use a call center model. With advancement in technology, and increased access to the internet, the reference desk may become an online web page or a call center, no longer an actual physical desk.


The reference desk and how it is viewed has certainly been evolving with the profession of librarianism. Despite the form the desk may take with changing technology, one aspect that remains constant is that it continues to be a place where the reference interview takes place and the librarian provides service to patrons. Despite discussion over its placement, or even its physical existence as a desk, it continues to be an enduring symbol of the interaction between librarian and library patrons and their questions.




Coffman, S. & Saxton M.L. (1999). Staffing the reference desk in the largely-digital library. The Reference Librarian, 66, 141-163.

Green, S.S. (1876). Personal relations between librarians and readers. American Library Journal, 1(2-3), 74-81. Retrieved October 9, 2006, from

Ferguson, C.D. & Bunge, C.A. (1997). The shape of services to come: Values based reference service for the largely digital library. "College and Research Libraries 58, 252-265.

Larason, L. & Robinson J.S. (1984). The reference desk: Service point or barrier? RQ Reference and Adult Services Division, 23,(3), 332-338.

Massey-Burzio, V. (1992). Reference encounters of a different kind: A symposium. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 18,(5), 276-280.

Morgan, L. (1980). Patron preference in reference service points.

RQ Reference and Adult Services Division, 19, (4), 373-375.

Pierson, Robert. (1977). On reference desks. RQ Reference and Adult Services Division, 17(2), 137-138.


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