MOUSS Reference Services in Medium-Sized Research Libraries Discussion Group

2000 Midwinter Meeting Minutes
Tuesday, January 18, 2000
River Walk Plaza, Monterrey Room
San Antonio, TX

Chair, Chris Hannon, Smith College, began the meeting at 9:30 A.M. by introducing herself and welcoming the participants. Steering Committee members introduced themselves. They are: Patrick Oberholtzer, Member-at-Large, Gallaudet University; Kay Womack, Secretary, University of Oklahoma; and John C. Hepner, Past Chair, Texas Woman's University. All participants introduced themselves.
Twenty-two participants attended representing the following institutions: Auburn University, California State University-Fresno, Carnegie-Mellon University, Eastern Illinois University, Gallaudet University, The Library Center of Point Park College & Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Mercer University, Pepperdine University, Seminole Community College, Smith College, Utah State University, University of Haifa (Israel), University of New Orleans, University of North Carolina-Charlotte, University of Oklahoma, University of Toledo, University of Vermont, University of West Florida, Texas Woman's University and Whitworth College.

The Chair explained the purpose of the Steering Committee and announced that a new Member-at-Large will be elected or selected at the annual meeting in Chicago. Attendees should be thinking about this and attend the annual meeting if they wish to nominate themselves.

Vacancies were announced at the University of Oklahoma, University of New Orleans, Mercer University, University of West Florida, University of Vermont and University of Toledo. A question was asked about the size of applicant pools. The question was discussed briefly.

The Chair reported that although the discussion group had asked to meet on Monday morning at the Midwinter 2000 Conference, due to RUSA conflicts, the meeting was scheduled for Tuesday morning. For the 2000 Annual Conference in Chicago, the meeting will be on Tuesday morning. After that the discussion group will revisit the topic and the RUSA schedule.

Minutes from the Discussion Group are sent out on e-mail. They also are posted on the RUSA website under RUSA MOUSS.

The Chair asked for discussion topics. The topics suggested and the number of votes each received were:

  • Staffing levels at reference desks and what positions staff the desk (14)
  • Impact of multiple electronic resources (multiple databases with multiple interfaces) on remote access and training (13)
  • WebPage design for optimum use and who has the last word (13)
  • Placement of the reference desk (8)
  • Level of traffic at the reference desk - number and length of transactions (7)
  • Service to the disabled - is the reference desk or department involved and what is the impact? (7)
  • Research consultation services (6)
  • Statistics (6)
  • Trend of the number of reference desks in institutions (5)
  • Percent of transactions requiring use of print sources (3)
  • Real time reference service on web, chat services, etc.(3)


In the introduction to this topic the questions included who answers reference questions when students, staff and reference librarians staff the Reference Desk. What are the differences in the type of questions each staff level answers? How much do non-librarians do, especially students, and how are they trained and monitored?

University of West Florida reported that a LTA and students are scheduled with a professional; there are no problems. This has worked out very well with mentoring by the reference librarian. Reference librarians have a very proactive presence on campus with involvement with faculty on committees and in instruction.

At Gallaudet University if students are trained to work at the Reference Desk, questions would be asked about why reference librarians are needed.

At Texas Woman's University reference librarians are on call every hour the library is open. Students and staff at the desk are the first point of contact but not the last point. The types of questions they answer and their training differs. Training is emphasized. For example, they are trained on the ins and outs of the databases but they don't recommend databases. Librarians recommend resources and explain how to conduct a database search. When librarians are on call they are supposed to check to make sure referrals from the desk are made correctly. They periodically monitor the desk. Students who don't perform correctly are dismissed.

At the University of Toledo the topic has been under discussion for ten years. MLS librarians have been reduced from two to one. How well does the library user understand if they receive good service? A professional knows where the answer is and how to find it quickly.

At Pepperdine University there is a Reference Desk with a smaller student desk at a ninety degree angle to it. A sign states exactly what kind of help is available from the student. Every librarian, even catalogers, must spend at least four hours a week at the Reference Desk. They receive training when a new database is received. In the evening there is separate staffing which could not be filled by MLS librarians due to the pay rate.

The participant from Gallaudet University mentioned the Brandeis and Johns Hopkins studies about getting rid of the reference desk.

The University of Maryland has closed a library or desk and centralized more reference librarians which the participant hopes will be reported in the literature.

The participant from The Library Center of Point Park College & Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh asked if staff are required to write down their questions. One person reported that students and paraprofessionals write down their questions. Carnegie-Mellon University noted the literature on successful reference, staff levels and quality of reference service and felt that there should be a reference librarian at the desk. Also, this participant felt there is value at an educational institution in bringing students into reference deskwork because they can be good representatives to the rest of the academic community.

Mercer University indicated that the level of traffic ties in with staffing. Literacy guidelines give equal emphasis to correctly asking the question.

At Smith College, while part of the administration on an acting basis, this participant felt cut off from the library day-to-day activity and continued to work on the Reference Desk. It is really important to have reference librarians. Whether to have staff and students work on the Reference Desk is dependent on the institution and the caliber of the institution.

The University of Vermont has used student peer counselors in combination with reference librarians. In watching students approach the desk they will veer to the peer counselors. The peer counselors know their role well. The frustration of reference librarians is not having contact with students and this approach gives them an opportunity to have sustained, semester-long or more, relationships with a student and a real opportunity to mentor and teach one-on-one. This is a benefit since most student relationships are in single classroom sessions or brief encounters at the Reference Desk.

The need to have the administration more in touch with reference desk service at the University of West Florida resulted in the Associate Director working the desk once a week. The Director also works at the desk but on a less regular schedule. This allows them to better represent the library.

At the University of Oklahoma staff, graduate assistants and reference librarians work at the Reference Desk. Reference librarians are not scheduled every hour the desk is staffed. While graduate assistants are able to answer many questions well, they do not always answer questions accurately even when the appropriate source is available in the desk collection. Staff and graduate assistants are supposed to refer questions to reference librarians when more knowledge or expertise is needed. A separate desk is staffed by students who assist with computers. They are trained to assist with printers and in identifying appropriate databases and to know the mechanics of the databases but to refer questions to the reference librarians when knowledge of the subject literature is needed. Gallaudet University asked for an explanation of student training.

At the University of West Florida a LTA is responsible for training students, so the LTA needs to know first. Students back up the LTA and have very elementary tasks. Librarians suggest sources for the LTA to use. They have a manual. An internal training program exists for new databases.

At Texas Woman's University students are required to attend an intensive training session every semester. An explanation is given of what they can do and how to do it. They are introduced to the staff. The first two weeks of the semester students are closely monitored by librarians and a staff member who coordinates them. They are tested. They have a manual. Duties are reviewed with the students. Everyone wears a badge which distinguishes the person and level of position. TWU has an information desk, not a reference desk.

Whitworth College doesn't use students. A paraprofessional works at the reference desk some. Using students was never satisfactory at other institutions where this participant worked. The issue of constant monitoring was raised since many reference librarians have multiple roles and need to work on their other activities when they are not on duty at the Reference Desk. Monitoring is seen as the key.

At Texas Woman's University they are never without a reference librarian on duty and students are never in a position of being unsupervised.

At the University of West Florida students are never alone. A librarian monitors them while on duty and explains the sources used.

At the University of Toledo when there is no one at the Reference Desk users will turn to other users. A question was raised about the cost of staffing the Reference Desk when few questions are asked.

At the University of Oklahoma even when a user asks a question at the Reference Desk another user may jump in and answer the question without waiting for the person on duty to respond.

At Pepperdine University monitoring occurs because of the proximity of the desks. T

he participant from California State University-Fresno noted that ALA guidelines say there should be a reference librarian on duty every hour the library is open.

University of West Florida: With multiple databases with multiple interfaces and different passwords, how do we train users? Faculty think the quality of research has fallen off. Also, this impacts on statistics which indicate there is less in-house traffic. Users are more computer knowledgeable. Also, how do we train ourselves as well as users?

At Pepperdine University all students don't know how to use the Web. High schools may not have given them the background to use the Web. All students are required to take a freshman seminar in which students are introduced to major databases. They also are trying to do another session plus web evaluation in English classes. There is an electronic buddy through which users can receive assistance.

The University of Toledo indicates there are two sides to the topic: (1) mechanics or interfaces and (2) sociology of knowledge. The first is compared to complicated print indexes. The movement to implement Z39.50 will help. Web search engines probably are settling down because software probably is based on certain families of principles. The sociology of knowledge is what librarianship is about. There are differences in communication in certain fields. It is important to keep up with and deal with users of different fields of full-text knowledge.

Texas Woman's University has received lots of resources. The issue is for Technical Services to keep up with what is available electronically.

Mercer University asked how the information is made available. How does one keep up with the complexity and can Technical Services indicate what is available?

For approximately 2.5 years the University of Oklahoma has been creating catalog records for the titles available in full-text databases and will begin to catalog URLs recommended by the subject librarians.

At Pepperdine University only those dealing with the local curriculum are cataloged. The subject specialist is responsible for training when a database changes or a new one is acquired.

Carnegie-Mellon University talked about those who don't come to the library and students who don't know what they are missing by using only Web search engines. The library is establishing a new identity. Faculty are the key to helping us reach the students.

At the University of West Florida the policy is to put as much as is essential in the catalog.

Pepperdine University indicates we need to educate the faculty because they are not aware of what is happening and they have greater contact with students.

The Library Center of Point Park College & Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh indicates the crux of the problem is whether users will continue to turn to libraries for information. Because of marketplace competition offering information services, we need to add value to the library services we provide if we don't want users to bypass libraries.

At Gallaudet University faculty complain about the quality of research.

Auburn University mentioned the OCLC CORC (Cooperative Online Resource Catalog) which will create pathfinders.

Pepperdine University reported that CORC involves reference librarians in getting these resources online.

The Library Center of Point Park College & Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh asked if libraries assisted students with their own WebPages.

The University of New Orleans reported that groups design WebPages and that at this institution there are three web masters. A cataloger serves as the primary web master. This participant wants to know who makes the final decision as to the order and design.

At the Texas Woman's University the library has control over library WebPages. There is a webmaster. It is a collegial library where everyone can give input and the webmaster is cooperative. The final decision may depend on who influences the decision. There is a constant state of revamping. Other individuals do some WebPages. They work with the web master for consistency.

Auburn University asked what is meant by design. Part of the responsibility of the webmaster at Auburn is to talk to people.

Pepperdine University has a web committee which tries to achieve consensus but cannot always do this. The webmaster is not a librarian. The webmaster designs the front page and asks for comments. Reference librarians' pages are put in a staging area. The committee makes policy decisions such as reference people are responsible for their own pages.

University of North Carolina-Charlotte suggested that gathering statistics can be beneficial in a less collegial environment. These can help get the most used items to the top page. Software can track usage.

Mercer University indicated at the second level you need to be able to change curriculum level entries.

The University of West Florida has found statistical software invaluable. A committee deals with different styles of webliographies as opposed to information.

Gallaudet University felt that telephone numbers were important but had noticed that there were few telephone numbers on WebPages and asked if others had noticed this.

Pepperdine University felt it is important to have phone numbers for the various libraries and subject specialists on the main WebPages.

The University of West Florida and Auburn University use mirror servers before pages go online.

Texas Woman's University indicates an e-mail link is important on each page.

The University of West Florida has a policy on periodic review of dated information.

Pepperdine University noted that individuals might want to have their names on pages they create because of promotion issues.

The meeting formally adjourned at 11:30 A.M.. Informal discussion about WebPages continued after a number of people had left.

Respectfully submitted,
Kay Womack Secretary