Rethinking Reference: New Models and How to Get There
There's a lot of shaking going on," one presenter's contributiuon to a conference-long contest to identify the catchiest song lyrics, best descibes the state of flux currently experienced in academic library reference service. Indeed, the official t-shirt shows a librarian standing on the information desk ready to detonate dynamite labeled "danger new paradigm," saying "I've been rethinking reference."
Emerging from the increasingly electronic information environment are changes in the nature of reference service in college and university libraries:
more remote users and librarians leaving the confines of the library building to serve them; librarian office hours in academic departments;
"tiered" reference service with an Information Desk staffed by students and paraprofessionals for directional and informational questions; a ready reference desk for brief, repetitive questions, also staffed by paraprofessionals; and in-depth research consultation services available by appointment or referral provided by librarians; pro-active services for faculty; some libraries had even eliminated the traditional Reference Desk; others had "roving" librarians near their electronic information sources;
centralization of reference service points, feasible now since providing information is no longer place-dependent in an electronic environment;
flattened hierarchy of decision making; the formation of teams cutting across reference, technical services, and systems departments;
user-centered services with needs ascertained through surveys and other research tools;
greater emphasis upon electronic rather than print information sources and access rather than collection; use of Internet; e-mail reference service;
Jerry Campbell, University Librarian at Duke University, author of the infamous "Shaking the Conceptual Foundations of Reference: A Perspective" article in the winter 1992 issue of RSR, opened the conference as the keynote speaker. In his folksy but iconoclastic style he punctuated his points with metaphors of country music:
"He's the busiest memory in town" described the obsolete reference librarian.
"I ain't had a thing that ain't been used" described proud librarians surveying their CD-ROMs. "There ain't nothing wrong; there just ain't nothing right" described the status quo of reference service in academic libraries.
Campbell used the term "access engineers," to describe reference librarians' new mission to design, develop, and deliver information on demand. Because of the need for data to evaluate how well the library is doing, the Duke University Library conducted focus groups and user surveys to determine how users prefer to obtain their information. They discovered that users considered the characteristics of a good information source to be accessible, fast, less time consuming, labor-saving, free, computerized, networked with other libraries, comprehensive, having expertise available (a librarian or human help on demand).
There were several presentations of new models of reference service actually implemented in academic libraries. Virginia Massey-Burzio, Head of Resource Services at Johns Hopkins University and formerly Head of Reader Services at Brandeis, described removing the reference desk and initiating a Research Consultation Service. Undergraduates were the first users of this new Research Consultation Service. This model was introduced because of dissatisfaction with the existing service. The presence of electronic information sources had increased questions. With long lines of users at the desk, librarians could not spend much time with any one patron and their expertise was not fully utilized in dealing with paper jams and repetitive questions. The library had stressed user accessibility to the librarian to the detriment of quality. The Research Consultation model introduces a new role for the reference librarian moving from a department store sales clerk model to that of a lawyer-client relationship.
Frances Painter, Director of Administrative Services at Virginia Tech University Libraries continued the practice of introducing catchy phrases with "empower the aimless," "having lost sight of our objective, we redoubled our efforts," and "since he already knows everything, he is not confused by a new thought." Virginia Tech has articulated its missions relating to services, collections, and organizational climate to reflect an emphasis on user service. Annual setting of goals and objectives and development of action plans precedes and drives the budget. Virginia Tech regularly conducts user surveys. The Virginia Tech Library reorganized, combining four reference departments into two and flattened its hierarchical structure by eliminating the Assistant Director and having all departments report directly to the Library Director.
Janice Simmons-Wellburn, Head of Main Library Reference at the University of Iowa, spoke of Iowa's reorganization. The Information Desk is staffed by students; the Reference Desk is staffed by one librarian instead of two to allow time for users to make appointments for research consultations with librarians who are freed from Reference Desk responsibilities. Consultation offices are behind the Reference Desk and users are referred back to librarians in the office for in-depth assistance. Iowa redefined reference as "Information and Instructional Services." Another aspect of Iowa's reorganization was the formation of humanities, social sciences, and science divisions which brought together bibliographers, catalogers, and reference librarians.
Larry Oberg, University Librarian at Willamette University, elaborated upon the new bifurcated model of reference service with the simpler, recurring questions answered by support staff and students and the more complex, unique questions by librarians. He expects that this will change the expectations of researchers. In an electronic environment librarians will have more questions coming through the campus network than across the reference desk and more resources available through Internet than from the library collection. He stated that between eighty and ninety percent of academic libraries were using paraprofessionals for reference and information services and he cautioned against a blurring of their distinct roles brought about by librarians reluctant to give up their former duties to assume new functions.
James Rettig, Assistant University Librarian for Reference and Information Services at the College of William and Mary Library and President of ALA's RASD, discussed trends in innovation in reference service:
1) tiered reference service to filter out the routine questions. Some libraries have eliminated the Reference Desk.
2) floating reference librarian ranging among users of the OPACs and CD-ROMs. Librarians, such as those at Boston University, observe users and ask if they need assistance. This was described as interrupting those that are perfectly happy or shepherding those who looked lost.
3) going out to the users in the faculty offices. Librarians at such institutions as Curtin University in Perth and University of Tulsa diagnose needs, train users, and establish channels of communication.
4) user studies. Virginia Tech and M.I.T. have used this device.
5) artificial intelligence. Although few examples exist, interest continues to grow, spurred by the merger of libraries with computing centers.
6) on-demand library service when and where they want it, including all over campus. This same trend is away from group instruction designed for the librarian's convenience.
Rettig commented upon the need for user centered design of technologies such as OPACs and CD-ROMs Internet, like programmable VCRs, has a complexity problem, a mismatch between the technology and the ability of the users. The goal is to redesign systems to give the user the maximum sense of control without the need for librarian intervention and relieve the librarian of repetitive questions.
Terry Mazany, a consultant from Detroit specializing in organizational change, illustrated the point that change is hard with the story of a pirate who had a wooden leg from a shark attack, a hook for a hand from a sword fight, and only one eye as a result of sea gull droppings. When asked about how sea gull droppings could cause blindness, he replied that it could when he had only had the hook for one week when it happened.
Mazany pointed out that knowledge is actively created, not passively received. Learning occurs during a period of conflict and confusion. Learning is a social process involving negotiation, working together to establish ideas cooperatively. He discussed a continuous improvement model for change moving from readiness for change to redesign to implement and improve. His handouts described the characteristics of participatory leadership, leadership roles and the design principles for successful organizational change. The principles for continuous improvement include placing the customer first, being mission driven, creating a culture of trust, focusing on and measuring outcomes, empowering libraries by pushing control out of the bureaucracy, creating choices, decentralizing authority, making decisions based on data.
Institute participants in small groups of approximately ten members developed a new reference model with its emerging and desirable characteristics and components. The small groups also strategized about desired changes and practical implementation steps.
The items to be eliminated or reduced under this new paradigm for reference included customized bibliographies and guides,
printed indexes, mediated online searching, reference librarians at the desk, some service points, administrative layers, technical service staff, index tables, vertical files, orientation tours, telephone reference.
Ann Coder, is Librarian, and Head of General, Humanities/Social Science Reference Services Hamilton Library, University of Hawaii at Manoa. Internet: firstname.lastname@example.org Bitnet: email@example.com Mailing Address: University of Hawaii at Manoa, Hamilton Library, 2550 The Mall, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822 USA. This paper is a response to the Library Solutions Institute held at Berkeley, California, March 12-14, 1993. The Institute will be repeated at Duke University, June 4-6, 1993. Registration will be $375. Contact Library Solutions Institute, 2137 Oregon Street, Berkeley, California 94705 or Email alipow@library.Berkeley.EDU for further information on future institutes.