RUSA Reference Services Section RSS Hot Topics in Frontline Reference Midwinter 2008 Discussion Notes

ALA Midwinter, Philadelphia
Saturday, January, 12, 2008
4:00 ­ 5:00 p.m.

The advertised topic for the meeting was: Combining Service Desks: Toward a Single Service Point for Library Users

Lisa Horowitz, Coordinator of Central Reference Services, Massachusetts Institute of Technology [] led off the meeting with a discussion of how MIT combined their reference and circulation services. MIT decided about 10 years ago to move towards combined service. As background, she noted that MIT has 5 libraries, none of which is considered the "main" library. Initially, the process was slow and not mandatory, with staff in each library voluntarily agreeing
to share responsibilities between reference and circulation. While this has become more formalized, there are still differences in each of the libraries for how the shared staffing is actually implemented. One reality driving the decision to move towards a single service point: circulation staff are answering reference questions anyway ­without training; a concerted effort to combine services might actually lend itself to better training opportunities.

The floor was then opened for questions, comments, and news from other libraries that have already combined their services or are thinking about it.

Baltimore County Community College already has a single service point model. The librarian there noted that it may be somewhat easier in a community college environment because the level of reference question isn't as high as it might be at a research library. Therefore it's easier to train circulation staff to field reference questions.

One of the smaller Penn State campus libraries is also working with a single service point. Again, the size of the library (smaller libraries tend to have more
integrated staff) may be a factor in how easy it is to move in this direction.

Kansas State is trying to combine reference, circulation, ILL, and reserves into one service point ­ just at the early phases of review now.

Potential problem: Circulation staff are answering reference questions while reference librarians are filling paper in copy machines. This is probably happening whether you have one service point or separate desks for reference and circulation.

Lesson learned: There's a perception (among many reference librarians) that circulation is "easy"­ not true! So, moving towards combining staff into a single service point can help build respect between reference and circulation.

Possible, less dramatic, alternative: Rather than physically combining desks into one service point, a more gradual approach might be to cross train (some or all) of the reference and circulation staff, and have them work as a team at each existing service point. This could also be a first step towards removing one desk altogether.

Has there been any assessment of the change in service from the patrons' perspective (rather than staff)?

  • At MIT, virtually no reaction from patrons ­they almost didn't understand the question. But they have not done a formal assessment.

What if you have student assistants working at the circulation desk? How will they handle reference questions?

  • An ongoing training issue.

What if (or do) reference questions actually bog down the work at the circulation desk?

  • Can refer the patron to a reference librarian on the spot, or have the patron make an appointment for a reference consultation

What about privacy issues (with more staff working at circulation, and more access to patron information)?

  • Staff (at MIT) had to take a course dealing with privacy issues.

Has anyone added IT help at their reference/information/circulation desk(s)?\

  • Miami and the University of Virginia have added this at their information desks.

The session was extremely well attended, with sixty-six (66) people signing the attendance sheet. (The actual number present may well have been higher, as many people were standing.) While this was good news in many ways, the number of people present and the size of the room might actually have deterred "discussion." The majority (approximately two-thirds) of those in attendance were from academic libraries, the remainder from public (except for two from state libraries).

For more information on the MIT plan, see: Flanagan, Pat and Lisa R. Horowitz, "Exploring new service models: Can consolidating public service points improve response to customer needs?" The Journal of Academic Librarianship 26.5 (September 2000): 329-338.

Notes submitted by,
Suzy Szasz Palmer
For the Discussion Group steering committee