MOUSS Reference Services in Medium-Sized Research Libraries Discussion Group

2002 Annual Meeting Minutes
Sunday, June 16, 2002,
4:30-6:30 pm
Ritz Carlton, Committee Room
Atlanta, GA

Chair, Patrick Oberholtzer - (Gallaudet University), began the meeting at 4:30 pm by welcoming everyone and introducing himself. The rest of the Steering Committee, Linda Harris, (University of Alabama) Member-at-large, Colleen Seale, (University of Florida) Secretary and Kay Womack (University of Oklahoma), Past Chair, introduced themselves followed by twenty-two participants representing the following institutions: American University, Appalachian State University, Baylor University, Brigham Young University, California State University-Fresno, DePaul University, Getty Research Library, Marquette University, National Library of Canada, San Francisco State University, Social Security Headquarters Library, Texas Woman's University, University of Missouri, Rolla, University of Missouri, St. Louis, University of North Carolina- Charlotte, University of the Pacific at Stockton, University of Texas at Arlington, University of Utah, University of Virginia

Job Announcements:
Vacancies were announced at: Brigham Young University, Getty Research Library, University of Missouri at Rolla, University of Missouri at St. Louis, University of Oklahoma, University of the Pacific at Stockton, and the University of Utah.

Nominations for Member-at-Large were solicited. By unanimous acclaim, Curley Jones, University of Utah, was elected as the new Member-at-Large.

Name Change:
A proposal to change the name of our discussion group to Reference Services in Small to Medium-Sized Libraries Discussion Group was proposed by the MOUSS Board. John Hepner, MOUSS Executive Board member, discussed the background around the proposed name change that resulted from a recent RUSA MOUSS organizational review. At one point in the history of this discussion group, the name included the word small. The proposal was discussed and brought to a vote. A majority voted to accept the name change.

Midwinter Forum:
The new Midwinter format with speaker(s) and discussion for the first hour was discussed. The format was judged a success at Midwinter and plans are to continue this format at our next Midwinter. The following topics were suggested for discussion at Midwinter:

  • Training for new reference librarians at library schools, what coursework is being offered, is cataloging still offered as a core course?
  • Chat reference
  • Assessment of the reference encounter
  • How do reference departments manage websites?


Patrick asked for discussion topics for the meeting. The topics suggested were:

  • Generation X and baby boomers, co-existence in the reference department
  • Prioritizing service: local versus global and the reference mandate to know your community - How does that work with 4/7 service distributed across the country or around the world?
  • What are we doing at the reference desk now -- spending more time with fewer people?
  • Combining desks, consolidating services (reference and circulation) in one area and new structures for services; the division of labor and training.

Topic #3 received the most votes, followed by topic #4.


TOPIC: What are we doing at the reference desk?

University of Missouri at Rolla began the discussion saying that at Rolla they now spend 50% of their time on email. What is reference?
West Texas noted they do all sorts of things, research consultations, developing web sites, etc.…We can't define ourselves by what we're doing at the desk, our jobs are more complicated than that. Instruction is now a key part of our jobs. We spend less time tied to a location.
DePaul noted they're doing more group consultations and one-on-one consultations.
At the University of Utah they also don't spend as much time at the desk, also do collection development and instruction. They're mandated to go out and interview students and do more outreach, not the same role as 20 years ago.
University of Oklahoma noted that actual time at the desk is less than 25% of their assignments; reference work is more broadly interpreted.
UM at Rolla We used to be more involved in preservation than access. Now we're doing more access, the means have changed. We need to be where the tools are being used. The fear of reference is being discussed on listservs.
At Brigham Young (BYU) we spend a lot of time discussing what we used to do, more importantly, what should we be doing? Spending more time on collection development? Dave Tyckoson's paper on what is our community indicated not every community could be defined the same way. There's a mindset, we all so some collection management. We're really not in the information business, what we do is turn the reference encounter into an instruction moment, without users, we don't exist.
Gallaudet -Isn't this self-fulfilling, if the desk doesn't get traffic?
BYU we're generalists, required to have breadth and depth, we're afraid of the breadth.
University of Alabama, we're required to work as both generalists and specialists.
DePaul ditto, we're required to work to work both. New hires and volunteers go out to the suburban campus.
San Francisco State by mandate, all staff work at the general reference desk. The questions are so complex. The web has changed what you're expected to know and answer.
American University students need more help for longer periods of time. Students are short-changed. To do a good job, you need to spend more time with them. Some will take an hour to answer questions. We haven't closed the desk, but informally started more consultations. We have office hours much more like academic faculty; we're doing more in offices as well as at the Reference desk. We keep statistics for 30-minute appointments and for consultations. We're finding ways to account for periods of time when we're not on the desk.
San Francisco State most students seem to need it now…surprised at students who are willing to make appointments.
Oklahoma At the reference desk, we suggest that if students need more assistance, than can be done at the desk, that they make appointments. Three institutions in the audience had office hours. Are you re-defining what you're doing at the desk?
Missouri at Rolla, We started a research assistance program, we'll give 10-15 minutes for each session to help students get started. They had over 50 scheduled appointments with 4 librarians. They will assist with a literature review, an overview of the library and term papers.
BYU There is a class of students that doesn't fit the consultation/appointment mode. If the question is at certain level, will work with them at the desk. They'll also sit with them and work with them briefly or go out to them at their chairs. We have to do multitasking - go back and see how they're doing. Those doing the most reference work, also do the most off-desk work.
American University All of us are experts at identifying students with problems - we are there for service.
At Gallaudet we also have a teaching role but there doesn't seem to be a good return on time, its effectiveness versus enrollment. We haven't had good luck with appointments. We have one person at the desk and one person with a beeper. It can get busy so quickly. It's hard to gauge business at the desk.
National Library of Canada doesn't agree with treating reference work as a separate activity. They also use beepers. There is no cut-off on the amount of time spent on questions.
UT Arlington they have reorganized. They are on-call at home on a rotating basis with one 6-hour shift a month. No posted office hours, on call while at work. At the College of Business, 9 library assistants man the desk. They are instructed to call librarians. All librarians are now subject specialists. Envisions that satellite units will arise. Some librarians have office hours in academic buildings and do collection development from there. They do a lot of upper level instruction and more outreach to faculty.
University of the Pacific - Is anyone doing reference combined with an information commons? They are expected to know a lot of software applications.
At UNC Charlotte they have four desks in the commons area. They have an info desk, a reference/research desk that does informed referrals, a computer desk and a media services desk (scanning digital video and video editing). They have delineated Research computers from word processing.
At University of the Pacific their commons area has 50 computers and a desk.
At American University they acquired responsibility for the largest computer lab on campus, it's also an all-night lab but have parceled out the functions. What are expectations for reference librarians and training in these situations?
At the University of the Pacific core competencies are expected: how to do the basics, where things are located on the desktop, the manipulation would be up to the information commons students. Forget the names - reference doesn't mean anything, circulation doesn't mean anything, moving toward one or two service points that do everything.
UNC Charlotte agrees with the one desk is best concept and commented that even faculty don't understand which service is offered at which desk.

At 6 pm we started the second topic: Merging Desks

At San Francisco State to make it work it has to be geographically workable. Hopes that remodeling will address this issue there.
University of the Pacific indicated they like it and found that they could operate effectively with fewer people.
Oklahoma is not a proponent of one desk over the other separate desks.
At Alabama they don't mind doing both desks or walking over with someone. They have done more staff development to answer basic questions on WebCT and Blackboard.
At the University of Missouri Rolla they ask at the end of the transaction, "Did you find everything you needed?" Also do ILL requests. It's been a boon, more communication among staff, but not everyone wants to learn to do circulation.
Oklahoma library staff members don't want to learn to check out books.
At the University of the Pacific we looked at traffic at the circulation desk and the reference desk. Because 80% of our reserves are now electronic, the circ. staff members are bored. The information commons person is usually busy. So things were not very efficient, we needed to deploy people more effectively to use human capital.
At Gallaudet it doesn't matter where a patron gets the answer. They have been trained to do circulation, but with the complexity of the circulation system, it's not worth it to train the reference student assistants. The concern is not who answers the question but the quality of the answer. It goes back to that 55 % rule - Did you get the right answer?
At BYU there is a problem with reference librarians retreating to their offices. Who is listening to the questions? You have to listen to the questions to know best how to answer them. The physical presence of a reference expert is needed to know what is being asked.
At Fresno we slipped back into an answer, but most questions don't have an answer because the questions are more of the readers advisory, database advisory sort. We create this triage environment of 1-2 librarians and 1-2 students, when in reality they walk up to the first person available and expect an answer. During Sam Green's time there wasn't a desk, just a librarian wandering around and then later the desk thing developed, but everyone's situation is different and the configuration should fit the local situation. We are the people who should be helping. Although students are well trained, there is always an exception. Very small efforts contribute to good service. Most people are repeat users. It all adds up and they do come to appreciate our services.
Gallaudet noted that the FDIC Library almost closed. The people who helped them the most in staying open, their biggest advocates, were not their main clientele. Sometimes you don't even know what's appreciated. Fresno you also need feedback from your clientele.
At UNC Charlotte we're looking at user design, how often do we take our users into account? We've never talked to students to ask if the desk is effective. It's designed with the reference librarian in mind not the user.
BYU A RUSA MOUSS committee is trying to redefine reference and the reference transaction. Sam Green said it well: "guide, assist, promote." Maybe we struggle with the definition of reference because we don't want to do reference, we want to direct users instead. In a reference class, a recent comment was, "If librarians would stop being good librarians they would be good librarians. We need to be better listeners. We don't have a good understanding of user behavior. We need to understand behavior and behavior patterns, and then we'll be good reference librarians.

The Discussion Group adjourned at 6:30.

Submitted by
Colleen Seale, Secretary