Librarian Jim Brett stands ready to answer a steady stream of questions from U of G students this fall semester.

You can’t miss the location. Just inside the front doors of McLaughlin Library, you’ll see the “Ask Us” desk with a large sign over it and at least one helpful person just waiting to help you find what you want to know.

You might say the defining purpose of the library is to help people find answers. Of course, says user services librarian Jim Brett, but library staff have discovered that people sometimes have a hard time figuring out where to go or who to talk to. “Students’ time is precious, and they need to get help right away,” he says. “We envisioned something that would be like going to a hotel and speaking to the concierge. There would be someone who could direct you to the right place, if he or she couldn’t answer the question right away.”

The Ask Us desk was born over a year ago and has been tweaked since then. “Now we have three academic semesters under our belts, and we have a better idea of what works and what needs to change,” says Brett. Some of those changes will be implemented this fall.

Reviewing the results of the past year has been revealing. At first, the staff at the desk had a high number of what they call “directional” questions: “Where is the McLachlan building?” Or, more often: “I am already late for my class and I can’t find the building!” These questions typically decrease as the semester goes on and students learn their way around campus. But to help students faster, a map was created that shows campus buildings in a 3D view, making it easier to identify them. It’s displayed on a stand right beside the Ask Us booth.

Many other questions are about routine library functions: How do I print something? How can I make a photocopy of an article? How do I use the reserve desk?

Then there are the research questions. “Typically, when it’s a research problem, a student comes in with an assignment and needs journal articles on a particular topic,” explains Brett. “In the old days, someone from the research help desk would sit down with this person for 20 minutes to go over the research process. So when we first set up the Ask Us desk, we’d refer these students to an on-call service with one of our library associates or librarians.”

That process has evolved over time. “Now the Ask Us desk staff have started to say, ‘I will help you get started using Primo; come back if you need more help,’” says Brett. Students who need help in thinking through the assignment or interpreting the results still have the option to sit down with one of the research help staff.

Students with broader needs, such as graduate students arriving at U of G from other countries, will be assisted in making an appointment for a longer meeting with a librarian via webform. “We can support them in doing their research, improving their writing skills and in other areas,” explains Brett. “We see this as developing a relationship so that we can work collaboratively with the students.”

Early in the semester, the Ask Us team members are “very” busy, but even during slower times they average about 150 questions per day. The team answered a lot of directional and routine questions during the first year of the Ask Us desk, but the number of research help questions has fallen. This may be, in part, because the Ask Us addition was only one element of a library re-design, both physically and virtually. “More resources are online and students are using Google and Primo where in the past they might have needed help to find journal and book resources,” says Brett.

Data collected by the team also suggests that they get fewer questions from science students than from those in the humanities. Brett also notes that the desk sometimes gets questions that turn out to be more complex than they seem at first. He recalls one about drug culture in the 1960s that ended up pulling in six staff to tackle it from different angles. What was the question? It was about whether the song “Puff the Magic Dragon” referred to drugs. Apparently, it does not.

To help library staff understand how the community’s needs are changing, focus groups and informal surveys of library users have been conducted throughout the past year. The Ask Us desk, which was reconfigured late last fall to allow better traffic flow, is being adjusted again; the new first-floor design will create some additional seating space.

Brett says he thinks the most bizarre question the Ask Us staff get – and it’s asked quite often – is “Can I ask you a question?”

“Of course you can,” he says. “It’s the Ask Us desk!”