Other libraries provide reference service in different ways

by Terry Heinrichs

Dickinson College Library removed its reference desk in 2007. Middlebury College doesn’t have one either. As academic libraries see a decrease in use of this traditional service, some are considering this change but are not quite ready to take the desk away. Moving the reference desk to a more visible spot near the library entrance is one technique that some libraries have tried. Others have combined the reference and circulation desks into one service point, while some set up several information desks throughout the library. At Bryn Mawr College, the library combines research and technology assistance at its TECH bar.

With or without a reference desk, academic libraries are using many ways to provide reference services to their students. At Middlebury, the librarian on duty posts a big red “Librarian on Duty” sign on the office door. Dickinson librarians are “on-call” for casual research questions, while encouraging appointments during office hours. At Haverford College, the reference desk is not staffed during the day, but a reference librarian can be summoned to the circulation desk by a walkie-talkie. Some college libraries use a roaming reference technique, approaching patrons when they seem in need of help, and an outreach approach of setting up reference service in different locations outside the library, such as at a coffee bar.

Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and ten peer institutions (Amherst, Bowdoin, Colgate, Middlebury, Oberlin, Smith, Trinity, Vassar, Wesleyan, and Wellesley) use many techniques to offer reference services to library patrons. Chat, email, phone calls, and web forms are common methods. Texting is offered by a few. Most promote personal research consultations by appointment. Trinity College Library converted a vacant office near the reference desk into a consultation space for small groups (three to five students), which has been well received. About half of these libraries have students or paraprofessionals work at the reference desk during quieter times; they are trained to assist with basic questions and then direct the patron to the reference librarian in that specialty.

In a recent article in “Reference Services Review,” Theresa S. Arndt (Dickinson College) points out the trends: Reference transactions have decreased 35% over the past ten years at academic libraries; non-librarians (paraprofessional staff or students) can answer many of the questions asked; today’s students are accustomed to self-service, at gas stations and online shops, so they just help themselves to the wealth of online information. After much thought and research, Dickinson (2,400 students) adopted a “dangerous idea” in 2007 and removed the reference desk. Besides being on-call for research questions, reference librarians welcome students to schedule appointments during their office hours, similar to the faculty model.

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