Eliminating Traditional Reference Services in an Academic Health Sciences Library: A Case Study

By Schulte, Stephanie J. | Journal of the Medical Library Association, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Eliminating Traditional Reference Services in an Academic Health Sciences Library: A Case Study


Schulte, Stephanie J., Journal of the Medical Library Association


Question: How were traditional librarian reference desk services successfully eliminated at one health sciences library?

Setting: The analysis was done at an academic health sciences library at a major research university.

Method: A gap analysis was performed, evaluating changes in the first eleven months through analysis of reference transaction and instructional session data.

Main Results: Substantial increases were seen in the overall number of specialized reference transactions and those conducted by librarians lasting more than thirty minutes. The number of reference transactions overall increased after implementing the new model. Several new small-scale instructional initiatives began, though perhaps not directly related to the new model.

Conclusion: Traditional reference desk services were eliminated at one academic health sciences library without negative impact on reference and instructional statistics. Eliminating ties to the confines of the physical library due to staffing reference desk hours removed one significant barrier to a more proactive liaison program.

INTRODUCTION

The future of reference services in libraries has been the topic of discussion for many years. As long as twentyfive years ago, Ford proposed that reference desks be eliminated and services that librarians provide be reconsidered [I]. A series of articles published in 2003 addressed the future of reference in an ever-changing information landscape. Several of the future scenarios envisioned personalized service to customers by learning more about their unique information needs and perspectives [2-5]. These studies also recognized that reference questions were becoming more complex, requiring librarians to spend more time to address them. In addition, the studies posed the need for librarians to go to the user since information technology had made it unnecessary for the user to go to the library. Kronenfeld noted this same trend of "out of the library" activities that were providing new opportunities for curricular and instructional roles [6]. In response to changing user needs, many libraries have eliminated their reference desks in the last decade to consolidate service at one main desk [6-11]. How these desks are staffed varies from librarians and staff working together to librarians being on call in their offices. Some libraries have reported this latter practice has freed librarians to do other work during their oncall times [9, 10, 12].

Single service desks have also been appearing in the academic health sciences library community. The Tompkins-McCaw Library for the Health Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University gradually moved to fewer and fewer librarian hours at a single desk over several years, realizing that librarians needed to be freed from service desk hours to provide consultations and instruction outside the library. The library noted challenges in this staffing shift and reported that it continues to evolve [12]. The Duke University Medical Center Library addressed changing user needs and demands by moving to a single desk and experimenting with new staffing models from 2000 to 2008, including placing librarians on call [7]. Allegri and Bedard described service point consolidations with staffing changes at health sciences libraries at Texas A&M University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Several lessons learned were noted, including the need for staff to readily recognize when referrals to librarians were appropriate [13]. All of these libraries noted the need for ongoing training of frontline service staff at single service desks.

As the need for in-depth and personalized services to customers has grown, librarians have seen an opportunity to embed themselves in colleges and departments, either as liaisons or informationists [9, 14-16]. While these roles have effectively utilized librarians' knowledge and supported them as partners in education, research, and patient care, they have also demanded significant amounts of time to develop and implement.

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