Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Reference Desk Staffing Trends: A Survey

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Reference Desk Staffing Trends: A Survey

Article excerpt

Because of the current changes in reference desk activity--e.g., a decreased number of questions being asked at the reference desk and a focus on electronic resources along with the Internet--it is reasonable to consider whether reference desk staffing, especially in the use of personnel without an ALA-accredited MLS, has been affected. The investigators have observed these changes at their mid-sized university library and wondered if similar trends were occurring elsewhere. To answer this, they developed a twenty-question survey and, after a pilot study, sent it by e-mail to a random sample of 191 academic librarians in the United States who work in universities that enroll between five thousand and fifteen thousand students. This paper reports the findings to the survey questions. For example, 60 percent of the 101 returned surveys indicate that the number of reference desk staff has remained the same in the last three years despite 44 percent acknowledging a drop in the number of reference questions asked at their institutions; 62 percent use non-degreed personnel at the reference desk, and a large number of librarians do not know how important reference librarians will be in the next twenty years.


When James Rettig was president of the Reference and Adult Services Division of ALA in the early 1990s, he wrote that a lot of what we think is new in reference has been tried in the past, e.g., eliminating the reference desk and merging service points. (1) Today we see many examples of this in reference, such as an emphasis on teaching library instruction and information literacy, but we are also seeing some true changes. These include a decreased number of questions being asked at reference desks, a focus on the Internet, and more emphasis on the development of Web-based services and online databases that transfer much of the reference activity to the end user. This crescendo of change prompts one to question whether there is a concomitant alteration in staffing patterns in the form of hiring and using more non-ALA accredited MLS personnel, including student assistants, at the reference desk. To ascertain the current state of reference-desk staffing, the investigators developed a twenty-question survey, pilot tested it, identified a random sample of 191 librarians who work in universities that enroll between five thousand and fifteen thousand students, and sent the survey over the Internet. The 53 percent that returned their surveys provided a window into reference service, current staffing patterns, and the future of librarianship in academic libraries.


In 1975, Boyer and Theimer Jr. introduced their research findings on the use and training of nonprofessional personnel at the reference desk by quoting a Canadian academic head librarian, who said that 85 percent of the questions asked at the reference desk could be answered by nonprofessionals. (2) Their own survey research found that 69 percent of the responding libraries did use nonprofessionals, "defined as any person who did not have a master's degree in librarianship or the fifth-year BLS degree," to provide reference service for an average 33 percent of the total time that the desk was staffed. (3) The nonprofessional staff did receive some on-the-job training, but the majority did not have any formal in-service training. (4)

Picking up on Boyer and Theimer Jr.'s survey research, Courtois and Goetsch in 1983 set the stage for reporting their project by discussing several previous studies by Halldorsson and Murfin, Aluri and St. Clair, and Kok and Pierce. (5) They concluded that well-trained nonprofessionals could answer most questions, and that nonprofessionals were regularly used at reference desks because of financial considerations. But times were changing, and Courtois and Goetsch wanted to reexamine the variables considered by Boyer and Theimer Jr. and to add new ones, including length of employment, off-desk responsibilities, and staffing patterns. …

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