Editors: Ann P. Dougherty, Mountainside Publishing; Richard M. Dougherty, University of Michigan, Emeritus
Contributing Editors: William Miller, Florida Atlantic University; Barbara Fister, Gustavus Adolphus College;  
Mignon Adams, University of the Sciences in Philadelphia; Kathleen Miller, Florida Gulf Coast University;
Steven J. Bell
, Temple University; Larry Hardesty, Winona State University; Mark Tucker, Abilene Christian University
Vol. 27, No. 6              printable version (pdf)   home July 2007

Who Needs a Reference Desk?

by Steven J. Bell

Here’s a modest proposal. Let’s eliminate the reference desk. For many librarians and academic administrators that is an unthinkable proposition. The answering of questions at the reference desk is perhaps the most venerable and time-honored traditional library service.

An academic library without a reference desk staffed by professional librarians is nearly unthinkable. But think about it is exactly what librarians did — at both the 2007 midwinter meeting of the American Library Association in Seattle, and again at the 2007 Reference Services Symposium at Columbia University Library.

What factors are leading academic librarians to question the viability of the reference desk? Should academic administrators be concerned that the library may abandon it? Would a visit to the reference deskless library seem as odd and abnormal as a visit to an admissions building without a welcome center?

The prospect of eliminating the reference desk may alarm administrators, but raising these questions about the future of the reference desk is a healthy development. As Tom Sanville, Executive Director of the Ohiolink library consortium, said “We are probably paying a lot of attention to the wrong things — old things and ideas that have been successful for us, but will not keep us successful.”

In a rapidly transforming information environment, nothing within or related to academic library services should be considered sacred and immune from change.

If the reference desk no longer helps significant numbers of students to achieve academic success, then academic administrators need to explore options for new ways and means to connect library users to the information they need — when and where they need it.

Time to Respond to Decline and Change

Over the past decade academic libraries have undergone profound change. It is now common to find cafes in buildings that traditionally prohibited food and beverages. Collaborative study and computer tables far outnumber single-user carrels. Professional staffs once composed entirely of degreed librarians now include computer programmers and instructional technologists. But the reference desk has resisted change. Academic libraries still schedule their professional librarians, often supplemented by support staff and student workers, to sit at the reference desk for dozens of hours weekly. On an economic basis alone a case could be made that this is a grossly inefficient way to serve the community. In this “just-in-case” model, librarians often answer few substantive questions. Doling out software help and fixing paper jams, two frequent reference desk tasks these days, squanders the talent and expertise of skilled librarians.

The number and type of questions received at reference desks is a cause for concern. While most academic libraries are experiencing a resurgence in door traffic and student usage, every indicator suggests fewer reference questions are received each year. According to statistics collected by the Association of Research Libraries, the number of reference queries dropped from nearly 150,000 in 1998 to less than 100,000 in 2003. The Internet revolution takes its toll on the reference desk as students and faculty now easily answer many of their own factual questions with popular search engines. The OCLC Perceptions Report for College Students (see Library Issues May 2006) confirms that students overwhelmingly consult search engines first before considering using their academic library. All indicators suggest it is time to rethink reference.

While individuals may easily locate factual content with search engines, they often conclude that using these same tools for comprehensive research is an exercise in frustration. Those more complex research questions are the ones they ask at the reference desk. The problem is that traditional desk service was designed to answer shorter, less time-consuming “ready reference” questions — the type that could be answered by consulting the large number of reference volumes contained in the library’s reference collection. Contemporary questions often require in-depth consultations and the reference desk, often situated in a noisy, high-traffic area, can be an ill-suited location for this task.

Consultation rooms located away from the reference desk are needed. Rather than waste subject experts valuable time at the reference desk, one solution is to put trained support staff at central help desks to deal with myriad directional and technical questions while directing complex questions to available librarians.

Adapting to Millennial Generation Students

Perhaps the only thing changing faster than the nature of reference questions are the students asking them. The academic library user community is increasingly composed of millennial generation students. The need for fast, easy and convenient service defines their world. Contemporary students register online, chat with their advisor by instant messenger, and keep close friends in constant contact with text messaging. Expecting them to come to the library to wait at a desk in order to ask an authority figure a question seems completely out of touch with the times.

New research suggests that millennial students are far more likely than past generations to seek help and guidance from “someone like me” rather than authority figures or experts. Vast numbers maintain relations with total strangers in social networks, and they are more likely to consult those strangers for help than an academic librarian. According to the OCLC Perceptions Report for College Students, when asked to identify their “trusted sources for information,” librarians ranked far below both friends and faculty. Academic libraries must design and implement new reference service models, such as online chat reference, that better meet the social norms, behaviors and expectations of millennial generation students.

“Information literacy is more than just a good idea for helping students achieve institutional learning outcomes; it also promotes pre-emptive reference.”

As the prominence of information literacy programming in academic institutions increases, academic librarians have enormous opportunities to increase the level of pre-emptive reference while shifting patterns in how students seek out research assistance. Integrating library education into their courses proactively informs students about the resources needed and how to use them to successfully complete assignments. These knowledgeable students make fewer visits to the reference desk.

Also, as students become familiar with subject experts who provide instructional sessions in their courses, their information seeking behavior shifts from consulting strangers at reference desks, to bypassing it and going straight to the librarian they know and trust. That’s when students will come to the library. Information literacy is more than just a good idea for helping students achieve institutional learning outcomes; it also promotes pre-emptive reference.

Technology Disruption Signals Reference Desk Obsolescence

Some academic librarians argue that their institution’s unique culture supports ongoing face-to-face contact at reference desks. But what they cannot deny, and what is becoming a significant commonality across all institutions, is the impact of mobile communication technology. Even if academic libraries and their administrators completely ignored all of the trends that point to changes in information-seeking behaviors, new student lifestyles, and the nature of reference questions themselves, those who overlook the vast changes in mobile communications technology and its impact do so at risk of the library’s obsolescence.

We are becoming increasingly dependent on mobile telephones and handheld devices. Already these devices can manage and transmit a wide range of voice, data and media files, and this is but the dawn of the mobile communications revolution. It is highly conceivable that in the next five years mobile phones will be capable of much more, and advanced mobile phones are already available in Asian countries. As the telecommunications and entertainment industry combine to increase content availability, mobile and smartphone users will increasingly expect libraries to deliver services and content to their devices. If reference departments fail to keep up with mobile technology by developing the capacity to quickly deliver library data to users’ phones, reference services may transition from steady decline to complete irrelevance.

New Models for No-Desk Reference Service

Rather than lament the shifts in user expectations, research behavior, and mobile communications technology, higher education institutions can leverage these and other changes to design and implement new models for delivering reference services. At least one model requires no technology at all, and is based on moving librarians to spots where they put their subject expertise to good use. Rather than sit at desks waiting for real questions, while juggling printer foul-ups and answering directional questions, some libraries are moving librarians to consultation offices where they can provide the in-depth assistance many students and faculty need for academic success. Librarians are replaced with trained student workers or full-time paraprofessional reference assistants. Many academic libraries already depend on both during late nights and weekends.

According to Catherine Murray-Rust, University Librarian at Colorado State University, they are exploring new models. Her vision of an evolving reference service emphasizes the building of strong librarian-faculty liaison relationships to promote research and learning. Murray-Rust states the goal is to “shift highly skilled people to higher priority tasks that improve services and increase the value we add to the academic programs of the university.” At first multiple desks were consolidated. Now there is an information desk, but subject librarians no longer are assigned desk hours. They are perfecting a referral system that gets the user to the right librarian at the right time. The information desk is staffed by paraprofessionals most of the time. Murray-Rust acknowledges that the change met with some resistance and discomfort; some librarians were worried that the new model would fail to provide the depth of service that they feel some users need. But she stresses that the library cannot afford to have highly skilled library faculty spend their time waiting for questions that (perhaps) only they can answer.

Put Reference Help When and Where Its Needed

Library users often have questions while in the stacks searching for books or studying. Those users are more likely to just go without assistance rather than stop their activity to go to the reference desk. Why not experiment with roving reference, remote reference pods and even video reference kiosks? The latter is exactly what is being put into operation at Ohio University.

Reference kiosks. At the 2007 Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Conference, librarian Char Booth explained that by placing video kiosks in their stacks, reference librarians could answer reference questions from their offices or other locations in a way that allows for visual contact. This is a distinct enhancement over existing computer chat services that offer neither face-to-face or voice communication. Academic libraries can create their own relatively inexpensive kiosks with a combination of computers, webcams and voice-over-the-Internet services. They may also purchase customized and totally self-contained turnkey video kiosks for about $3,500. It is an alternative that allows users to get help wherever they are in the library from librarians rather than forcing them to go to a central desk location.

Roving reference with Vocera. The traditional reference model assumes that library users will routinely go to a reference desk to ask their factual and complex research questions. But librarians widely recognize that many users have no understanding of what a reference desk is for. International students, in particular, will ignore the desk because of the intimidation factor. At least one library is exploring a new mobile technology to put everyone in the library at the beck and call of the user — and it’s not an academic library. The Orlando Public Library has eliminated all but one remaining reference desk at their main building. Instead, all library staff use the Vocera communicator to constantly stay connected in order to get the right help to users when and where they need it.

The Vocera device is a small black wireless communicator that would look right at home in an episode of Star Trek. The device allows staff to communicate with each other with hands-free, voice-activated technology. At Orlando, users are greeted at the door by a staff member who  determines the nature of the visit. At that point the greeter simply says something like “Mobile 2” to contact a librarian assigned to roving the second floor of the building. The user is then directed to go to the waiting librarian for skilled research assistance. This far more proactive model is working.

According to Kathryn Robinson, Head of the Reference Division at the Orange County Library System, the Orlando Public Library is now in its fourth year of Vocera use. Robinson is ecstatic with the change it has facilitated. Rather than eliminate the human touch, their system of greeters and building roamers actually increases librarian-user contact. Instead of waiting at desks just-in-case, Vocera allows them to reach out to users in the lobby, in the stacks, in display areas, or any space users go. The real value for Robinson is that she recognizes that most people will not ask questions if their only option is to go to a desk. Instead of dealing with mundane matters, in this model librarians put their subject expertise to good use and with greater efficiency.

Reference desk in a bag. At least one academic library is using a similar, but less hi-tech solution at a more affordable cost. The University of California at Merced is the newest campus in the system. When its library opened two years it did so without a reference desk in the building. Reference and Instruction Librarian Michelle Jacobs demonstrated her “reference desk in a bag” at the ACRL Conference. With a Pocket-PC smartphone and a collapsible keyboard, Jacobs can do an Internet search anywhere to assist a patron searching for information. She and her colleagues voice-program each other into their smartphones to facilitate fast communication. Jacobs showed that it’s possible to leverage mobile phone technology to connect with today’s highly mobile users when and wherever needed without the need for a sophisticated or costly technology. Other libraries are encouraging students to text message their reference questions, which also takes advantage of contemporary mobile phones.

Why Keep The Reference Desk?

Convincing academic librarians that they should eliminate the reference desk is no easy task. Do so and you are likely to get a litany of reasons why the desk must stay. Let’s examine some of those arguments for keeping the desk.

So Do You Need A Reference Desk?

There may be other arguments for keeping the reference desk, and any decision to eliminate the reference desk or drastically re-engineer reference services is one that should be made collaboratively by librarians, library administrators, and chief academic officers. The decision should account for institutional culture, the ability of the infrastructure to support advanced mobile technologies, or the readiness of the librarians for radical change.

When considering the future of reference desk service it is important to keep in mind that the reference desk is in many ways a symbol of the service, but in and of itself it is not the service. If we eliminate the reference desk we only eliminate the symbol, but the service continues via new methods and models.

Though the reference desk is a powerful and endearing symbol of the helpful service provided by academic librarians, it may be the right time for college and universities to determine if the current reference desk model fits a future vision of the library as an agile, 21st century teaching and learning center on the academic campus. If we find no compelling evidence that it does, then administrators should conclude it is time to bid farewell to the old reference desk. —Steven J. Bell; bells@temple.edu


Library Issues: Briefings for Faculty and Administrators (ISSN 0734-3035) is published bimonthly beginning September 1980 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc., 321 S. Main St., #213, Ann Arbor, MI 48104; (734) 662-3925. Library Issues, Vol. 27, no.6  © 2007 by Mountainside Publishing Co., Inc. Subscriptions: $80/one year; $140/two years. Additional subscriptions to same address $25 each/year. Address all correspondence to Library Issues, P.O. Box 8330, Ann Arbor, MI 48107. (Fax: 734-662-4450; E-mail: apdougherty@CompuServe.com) Subscribers have permission to photocopy articles free of charge for distribution on their own campus. Library Issues is available online with a password at http://www.libraryissues.com


last modified: July  2007


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