MOUSS Reference Services in Medium-Sized Research Libraries Discussion Group

Midwinter 1997 Meeting Minutes

Tuesday, February 18, 1997

ALA Midwinter Meeting

Washington, DC

Christine Whittington, University of Maine, Chair, called the meeting to order at 9:30 a.m. and introduced the members of the steering committee: E

lliot Gertel, Florida Atlantic University, Secretary

John Hepner, Texas Woman's University

Vicki Wainscott, Southwest Missouri State University

Margaret Power, DePaul University, Past Chair


Position vacancies;

Christine Whittington, Chair, stated that a new election to the steering committee would take place in San Francisco at ALA Annual Conference and asked for those interested in joining the committee to volunteer; the chair also announced that while topics were collected in advance in the past, we would now select subjects for discussion at the start of each meeting as changes take place so rapidly these days.


Topics for discussion: (Order was determined by vote of those present.)

1. Doing away with the traditional reference desk (Brandeis model).

2. Internet access policies.

3. Moving from text based to Web based systems.

4. Application of behavioral guidelines for reference departments and formal evaluation of reference desk service in overall performance for retention, tenure, and promotion.

5. Inclusion of diskettes or cd-roms with printed reference sources (serials that arrive with disks).

6. Reference sources which only come out in electronic format.

7. Relationship between systems and reference departments and how this impacts management decisions.

8. Reference department participation in the writing of proposals for new integrated library systems.

9. Dealing with reference in a non-reference environment (as there was virtually no interest in this topic, decision was made to drop the subject).


1. Doing away with the traditional reference desk (Brandeis model).

Florida Institute of Technology (FIT): Wanted to change their approach to reference when the former department head retired and a new director, actually the Associate Vice President for Information Services as they don't have a real director now, came on board. They combined reference and circulation into one service desk approach. This freed reference librarians to move away from ready reference (every day, routine) service and towards a more cognitive approach. Paraprofessionals being trained/mentored to handle the day to day transactions. This is all very exciting and rewarding although confusing. At present, reference librarians have no time to handle these cognitive aspects because they spend all of their time training paraprofessionals. Information on FIT: They have 3,000 FTE undergraduates plus circa 300 graduate students and 3,000 part time students. The focus is on science, technology, engineering, biology, chemistry, and aeronautics. Humanities program includes School of Psychology. Campus is near Kennedy Space Center. There is a staff of 23 including 8 librarians. Computing is run by a corporation and is contracted for the campus. They have just moved from the Notis to the SIRS-C system. It is a busy and progressive library especially over the past 2 years.

Chair: Please describe the reference environment.

Response (FIT): 3 years ago, the librarians were scheduled at the reference desk and were extremely busy. Now they have moved the desk to the 2nd floor with periodicals. They have gone from being reference librarians to research instructors. Reference is now done at the circulation desk. The reality is that the reference librarians are not supposed to be behind a desk but should be moving around the library. Paraprofessionals are supposed to staff the circulation/information desk as they are mentored and cross-trained.

Question: How are students informed about this set-up? Students found out about these changes when they came into the library and saw no reference desk. They use signs to direct users.

Q: How about experimenting, e.g. change name to "Information Desk?"

A: This was discussed a year ago and they will not change the name of the service desk--it is called "Service Desk". They discussed using a floating librarian system and decided that they want as many people in the library to be able to answer basic questions such as "Where are the encyclopedias?" They want the librarians to get away from answering this type of question. An Information Advocate Program is in place: outreach/liaison to departments/faculty. Librarians are known and have name tags. Students know how to find them and for whom to ask [when they have research-type queries].

Q (College of Charleston): How do you define the cognitive aspects as opposed to reference questions and how do you manage [within this system]?

A: They are trying to increase instructional aspects and develop a first-rate instruction program. One way is by working with other departments and faculty Librarians are expected to stay ahead of the trends in the disciplines while moving away from routine reference questions. There is a formal system where each librarian mentors a paraprofessional one-on-one 5 hours/week.

American University: Can we survey other librarians who have done or considered this?

San Francisco State University (SFSU) considered doing away with the reference desk as budget cuts in 1989 and 1990 decimated the California State University (CSU) and decided not to. They need to serve many students who have not used a library and decided to keep the desk because there are too many people who need help. Even with an active instruction program you cannot reach everyone. They generally have three librarians at the reference desk at one time and supervise the only paraprofessional who works at the desk.

University of Maine: How do you train your students to conduct a reference interview and are you in effect training your paraprofessionals to be librarians?

Florida Institute of Technology is training paraprofessionals to work at their highest levels. This is not related to budget cuts -- in fact the number of staff is increasing: they have an added a reference librarian and will soon hire another . This really has to do with changing the library after 22 years of the same type of service. With the rapid pace of change, "we had to be a different type of library." They have very bright students and paraprofessionals and no one is forced to do this. Training is very thorough and almost everyone has embraced the changes. System always being scrutinized and evaluated and it's really beginning to work.

The University of Oklahoma needs to do something different. After a committee surveyed all aspects of service they had a marketing class do focus groups, surveys, etc. Results were that the reference desk should be moved--something that was also desired by the reference librarians--and that there should be service desks on each floor. This cannot be done easily.

College of Charleston: Sees the one on one transaction as integral to the process. Each contact with the student is an opportunity to teach and students need the instruction.

University of Pennsylvania: Doing away with the reference environment the desk is not the best way to provide service any more. The Brandeis model and its successors were really a critique of the on-demand service interaction. While we are afraid of losing that, we are now working in a workstation environment in which much is done away from a central desk. We need to define what are the problems -- is it the furniture or the process?

FIT: All librarians used to be on one floor and now there is at least one reference librarian on each floor. They are trying to bring the reference perspective to everyone. The government documents librarian is now a regular reference librarian.

University at Albany, State University of New York (SUNY): We must remember that each institution is a little different. You're specialized while SUNY and SFSU, e.g., are more general. How can we avoid answering simple questions? This can't be done at SFSU and Albany.

College of Charleston: One on one interaction is integral to library instruction; retracting this is frightening. Each contact is an opportunity to teach and each student needs as much instruction as can be gotten.

FIT: "We're not away; we're available."

University of Pennsylvania: Assumes that everyone here will staunchly defend reference service. Sometimes the motivation is to save money: to downsize. Brandeis/Hopkins model was that a new information environment was needed, that the traditional reference desk wasn't the best way to offer reference service; how can you do away with the reference desk and offer reference desk-type service? Now that more and more people work away from the desk, how can we function/serve in that type of environment? Do you just do away with furniture?

SFSU: Their electronic resources desk is near the reference desk where there are three reference librarians at a time; one person is assigned to always be at the electronic resources and rove. They are considering making all resources available at workstations throughout the library.

University of Cincinnati: Has three years of experience with working under the Brandeis model. They have a consultation area staffed by professionals, an information desk, and a beefed-up instruction division. Some reasons for the change were fiscal. The faculty like consultation, but the fallout is that one on one for undergraduates is lost. Resources are not increasing, so how do they handle it? The technology makes it difficult because you need to have both a computer person and a reference person on duty.

Cleveland State University. Has the same problems as Cincinnati since they are both part of Ohiolink. They have been deluged with databases that they would not have selected, with multiple software packages, multiple versions, etc. They have very sophisticated equipment and printers. In addition to traditional reference interview, the librarian needs to assess technology skills.

2. Internet access policies.

University of Maine: The problem that they are having is that they are obliged as a state institution to serve non-primary users and they have put up lots of terminals for Web and other database access. They have a problem with kids from the local community coming in and monopolizing the terminals to play games, "chat," etc. Students don't usually ask them to stop and the librarians are not in a position to police the reference area. When they did, the kids went to the 2nd floor where there is more privacy and took over the terminals there. How do others control this abuse? They don't like sign-up sheets and wonder how effective it is elsewhere.

University of Pensylvania has added many more terminals, but cannot do this forever. They have certain terminals in which the student must place an id card to use the terminal (displayed on top of the machine). This limits outside users to the other machines.

SFSU students are required to display an ID card by the terminal they are using and are limited to 20 minutes' use. They have also taken off the e-mail option. A 24 hour computer lab is located in the front of the library. A student assistant sits at this desk to help other students.

University of Oklahoma: Has simple policies -- 30 minutes when people are waiting, research rather than recreational use, etc. The state law of Oklahoma forbids people under 18 from looking at pornography. This causes new problems in monitoring use.

SUNY Albany: They have 9 terminals behind the reference desk and allow Internet access. They can't limit access but certain services are contractually limited. In such cases, having to type in library bar codes with a valid ID works well.

Chair: Do you have to devise a lot of policies? Do you have problems with non-university users who play games and "chat?"

SUNY Albany: Yes.

Chair: Is this a cause for concern?

SUNY Albany: When someone signs up, it's their business. There is no word processing available. People respect the sign-up policy. When SUNY students who sign up show up, they make the external users leave the terminals.

Chair: Are there middle school students who come by?

S UNY Albany is not that accessible. They get a lot of business people. They feel fortunate to not have the same problem as U. Of Maine.

Chair: U. Of ME is located on the way home from the middle school. Although they have a rule forbidding students under 14 years of age, they keep coming back.

SUNY Albany: It takes "a lot of guts" for users to look at pornography as librarians are right nearby. They let "that slide" by considering it "research" and not recreation.

University of Oklahoma: There is a state law that prohibits those under 18 to even look at pornography. Public libraries have a rule that parental permission is needed for their children to gain access. The university library doesn't and can't.

University of Texas at Dallas: How do you handle contracts which limit users from outside?

Georgia Tech: Systems staff have customized password protection for databases through the catalog. For databases that are on the statewide system, the passwords change quarterly. Campus passwords allow dial up access.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee: Remote access checks for university ip address.

Texas Woman's University: They have a general policy that people under 18 must come into the library with an adult. This takes care of Internet and other problems. 3. Moving from text based to Web based systems. American University. They are moving from Notis to a Web-based catalog. This raises a number of questions? Are you seeing a drop in the numbers of reference questions? Are libraries planning to have publications and guides or do the Web products not need them? Does it matter if students use Boolean logic? Are there complaints about slowness of web-based systems? How do you get the funds to replace all of the dumb terminals? What about getting better printers? Are students confused by the various Web search engines?

University of Maine: One problem is that they have both text and Web products and they do different things. They cannot do all of the things on the Web that the text version does, including request materials from another campus or ILL. The Web is much slower to use. Patrons are confused and want just one product that does not change every six months.

Georgia Tech. Has had a Web catalog for 1.5 years and still also has a text catalog. Students took to the Web well even with some response time problems. The OPAC is not the problem -- they upgraded the computer to make response better. The staff was slower to adapt but most are now using it. The whole state is looking at a cooperative project.

University of Oklahoma has not switched the catalog but is switching the IAC databases to the Web. This creates problems for instruction. They are putting together guides. Maybe we librarians get too concerned about the number of interfaces -- students are used to it.

University of Vermont: One of the values of the Web is the graphical interface. This takes us closer to looking like the print resources.

FIT: Web based product has had a big impact on instruction. All freshman must go through library instruction programs. Instruction should mention that there are a variety of options.

Utah State University is bringing up Notis horizon this fall. They put up both text and Web versions of Notis last year. The students have adapted quickly. Most students want the point and click versions. They will adapt more easily than the faculty. Response time does not seem as bad to the user as it is to us.

College of Charleston: We are all confronted by the transitional problems. We are moving toward the Web so we need to move along. The political questions are the bigger ones -- how do we get the connectivity in place?

University of Oklahoma. The State Legislature does not understand connectivity. Technology is an ongoing process and not one-shot funding.

Texas Woman's University: Political problems were solved by doing a survey on campus. Three surveys of faculty, grads, and undergraduates, showed that the technology on campus was not satisfactory enough. The University President has upgraded computing as a result. The faculty and the students supported the technology increase.

College of Charleston: Technology was pointed out in an outside accreditation review, which spurred some action. 4. Application of behavioral guidelines for reference departments and formal evaluation of reference desk service in overall performance for retention, tenure, and promotion.

SFSU: CSU system has librarian evaluations that are exactly the same as faculty. Faculty members have data from student evaluations, but librarians do not. How do we get a similar feedback for reference services?

University of Oklahoma: You can get feedback from a BI session, but not for reference or cataloging.

DePaul University: Head of Reference did use the behavioral checklist to evaluate the reference performance of reference librarians. She had the staff member and herself use it -- both filling out the form as a means of starting a discussion for evaluation. The level of formality used depends on the institution.

University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee used a form for peer review in a similar way. Cal State Fullerton: Instructor had the students use an evaluation form similar to that used when they have a guest speaker. This was interesting but not necessarily helpful.

University of Vermont: They describe reference as equivalent to advising--and inherently difficult to evaluate.

University of Oklahoma: Wants to sit down with the guidelines at a department meeting and go over them to discuss implementation.

SFSU: A couple of reference librarians claim that it is their academic freedom to behave in whatever manner they wish at the reference desk. What can be done about this? Has anyone been successful in changing the behavior of librarians?

University of ME: There is a certain amount of personal style. It's difficult for a reference librarian to not react when a patron behaves rudely to the librarian.

SUNY Albany: This is an area that they felt was a good place to apply guidelines; certain things are not proper and this [rudeness] is one; the group as a whole has moved to a standard response level. Academic freedom is not a good excuse.

Chair: Has anyone implemented David Tyckoson's (SUNY Albany) behavioral guidelines? Any feedback?

SUNY Albany: They have videos to use from sessions based on behavioral evaluations. Doubts anyone stands around with a checklist, e.g., "Smiles?" DePaul has used them, e.g. "knows the collection and makes appropriate referrals." Doesn't like grades so makes remarks in behavioral evaluations such as "needs improvement," "fine," or "excellent." Writing evaluations are always difficult especially when dealing with colleagues with whom one has worked. Saw the David Tyckoson's films and found them a good way to spark discussion. Working with someone on a regular basis makes it possible to determine if that person can be approached. Evaluating behavior is useful, but how formal does this need to be?

University of Oklahoma: Behavioral evaluations affect performance. The speaker has business-like manner that is interpreted by some as rudeness.

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (in reference to rude staff at SFSU): What have you done or what can you do? SFSU: Not much as far as fully-tenured full professor is concerned even within the post-tenure review held 5 years after tenure.

University of Rochester: Can you remove that person from "front-line duty?"

FIT: It should be possible to take some kind of action.

Wayne State University has an annual review. Having to "toot own horn" causes trepidation for the speaker.

[This was all that there was time to discuss]

ubmitted by Elliot Gertel, Secretary