Our profession has known for a long time that the traditional reference model is flawed. Constance Mellon coined the term library anxiety in 1986, reporting that students literally felt shame when approaching librarians for help. Yikes. That’s a strong feeling, one we don’t want librarians to evoke.

Nonetheless, the typical effort to improve the reference user experience has been meager. While many of us have been through customer sensitivity training, reminding people about how they should behave is no replacement for strategic hiring practices and considered design. Even genuinely friendly and caring librarians will be approached less if they’re hidden behind the typical imposing and unfriendly reference desk. The library literature is filled with articles about roving reference, yet at the majority of libraries I visit I still find reference librarians sitting behind hulking desks peering into computer screens, essentially ignoring what’s going on around them.

Prized possessions
Of course, big desks that create an antagonistic dynamic aren’t the only problem; people conducting research in libraries are less mobile than they once were. Not only do they have their papers, library items, and a coffee carefully positioned, they also often have a laptop, a phone, and a music device on display as well. While it’s one thing to leave a pile of index cards unattended, it’s a much riskier proposition to abandon an expensive piece of hardware.

Reference librarians can help these anchored folks by doing what they should be doing for all library patrons: finding them when they need help. Why don’t they?

The hard sell
Some librarians are afraid that pro­active reference is bothersome to patrons—too aggressive, a crass retail approach. If done badly, it can be all of those things. Quality reference work takes more than just being able to construct a complicated Boolean search; it takes social intelligence, too. Just the way librarians develop a command of information resources, they should also develop a greater understanding of people. Though some people are naturals, it is possible to develop the skills it takes to know whether a patron wants to be approached and how to engage a variety of patrons.

Some librarians also think an emphasis on collaboration diminishes the librarian’s expertise. However, every good interaction already features a collaborative reference interview. We should embrace this, and our furniture should support it.

Experiment with alternatives
Reference desks don’t have to be antagonistic. Boomerang-shaped desks with a computer monitor and an easily shared keyboard between two chairs set the stage for a collaborative interaction. Folding patrons into the research process acknowledges their contribution. This respectful gesture—and the other ways to consciously consider your reference setup—can ameliorate library anxiety and foster an engaging experience.

With the easy-to-use mobile computing options now available, roving reference makes more sense than ever. I spoke with Katherine Penner (Univ. of Manitoba’s Dafoe Lib.) and Martha Flotten (Multnomah Cty. Lib. [MCL]) about how they’ve experimented with Apple iPhones and iPads to deliver ­reference.

Flotten reports that they’re answering different types of questions away from the reference desk and that “librarians have mind-blowing reference tran­sactions weekly,” as when one MCL librarian was able to engage a patron deeply by putting her in charge of navigating library resources through an iPhone. Penner notes that their mobile reference project has changed the way students communicate with librarians: they’re now more comfortable approaching librarians in the stacks. These devices signal cultural relevance, and we shouldn’t ignore the benefits of using tools that impress patrons.

Designing reference service
There’s no need for your library to rob reference librarians of their desks immediately. Instead, first examine your current reference service. How did it get the way it is? Was it deliberately designed, or just the result of a series of small default decisions? Next, determine what sorts of information needs your patrons have. What do they want to know? What’s the best way for them to get help? You’ll probably find that you’re doing some stuff right and that there are things you could improve.

Brainstorm some solutions and make a plan to try out the most promising ideas. In this prototyping phase, ask people to get comfortable and learn about the new things they’re trying before they pass judgment. Afterward, everyone should report back, determine what worked/what didn’t, and put the good stuff into practice. Finally, consider these same questions anew in a few months, in light of what you’ve learned, and keep innovating.

This first appeared in my LJ column The User Experience.