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Reference Desk as Dinosaur

Page history last edited by slutsky@... 11 years, 5 months ago

How should we handle the dinosaur known as the reference desk?

Facilitator: Bruce Slutsky

Session 1: 10:30 am - 11:30 am

Woody Tanger Auditorium


While some libraries are seeing a decrease of reference desk transactions due to the increased reliance on the Internet, that doesn't mean that reference transactions has decreased, only that the place where the transactions happen has changed.


Despite this trend, some librarians have seen just as much, if not more, reference desk transactions. One medical librarian mentioned that she often use transactions at the reference desk as a teaching opportunity to teach the residents how to use online research tools. A community college librarian notes that she is seeing more reference desk transactions due to an increase in enrollment at her community college.

Some academic librarians note that some professors require nontraditional media sources (websites, audiovisual, etc.) while others are adamant about using print resources and note that they see more transactions with students who are given assignments from the latter.


A lot of librarians observe that while many students are used to using the Internet, most of them come in information illiterate due to a lack of preparation during their previous schooling.

People usually approach the reference desk as a last resort.

  • Often they are intimidated by the formality of the desk itself
  • They are intimidated by librarians
  • They are afraid they are interupting reference librarians, even though answering users is their job when they staff the reference desk


Reference transactions are taking place, however, those transactions aren't necessarily the traditional reference desk transactions.


Alternate types of reference transactions that are taking place at various libraries include:

  • Roving reference
  • Text message reference
  • IM reference
  • Email reference


The effectiveness of these methods varies based on the amount of pre-planning, resources, and staffing.

There was a conversation, particularly regarding roving reference, whether special equipment like portable laptops and walkie-talkies are required, however the real issue is making the effective use of the resources available to the library and whether the library planned the service effectively.


Librarians note that the key to increasing reference transactions is to be approachable and think of users as people rather than patrons. This often increases demand for particular librarians rather than to impart to them that any librarian could provide the service.


Links for further related readings: 

"Evolution of Reference: A New Service Model for Science and Engineering Libraries."



Kupersmith. Jon. Library Terms that Users Understand


Francoeur, Stephen. "Mini-workshops." Digital Reference, 29 August 2008. Web.


Susan M. Ryan, Reference Transactions Analysis: The Cost-Effectiveness of Staffing a Traditional Academic Reference Desk, The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Volume 34, Issue 5, September 2008, Pages 389-399, ISSN 0099-1333, DOI: 10.1016/j.acalib.2008.06.002.

A Review of:
Ryan, Susan M. “Reference Transactions Analysis: The Cost-effectiveness of Staffing a Traditional Academic Reference Desk.” Journal of Academic Librarianship
34.5 (2008): 389-99.

The reviewer highlights many of the deficiencies in the original study. It is an interesting critique that highlights a deeper understanding of what’s happening at the desk in relation to information literacy. Still the reviewer agrees the Ref desk must be rethought!


Comments (1)

sandra said

at 8:52 am on Jun 9, 2009

Another alternate type of reference is "book a librarian" model in which someone could make an appointment in advance for 30-45mins with a librarian. http://www.libraryjournal.com/article/CA6515867.html

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