A new service model for the reference desk: The Student Research Center.

Author:Deineh, Steven


In library school one of my instructors had a sign in his office that read "Ranganathan Said It All." Through school, I pondered how those seemingly simple principles could be so important. Since that time, though, I have used them on numerous occasions in considering new policies and procedures, and have found, time and again, that they are still relevant today. Ranganathan outlined the following rules in his 1931 book The Five Laws of Library Science (as cited in Rimland, 2007, p. 24): 1) Books are for use. 2) Every reader his or her book. 3) Every book, its reader. 4) Save the time of the reader. 5) The library is a growing organism.

These principles provide a test, or reality check, to make sure that as libraries grow and change, we design new policies and procedures that still help us accomplish our tried-and-true professional goals.

The fifth principle, that the library is a growing organism, is especially important to consider in light of new technologies. The impact that the Internet has had on the traditional reference desk is such that we find ourselves questioning the validity and effectiveness of traditional reference services. Patrons' ability to look up information on the Internet and the ability of paraprofessionals to answer directional questions puts into doubt the value of the traditional reference model's expensive and time-consuming (to staff) desk. We therefore find ourselves reexamining the current iteration of this growing organism to ensure that we are addressing and facilitating change effectively.

In addition to ensuring that current reference models are changing to meet patrons' needs and expectations, it is just as important that they regularly be considered against Ranganathan's fourth law to ensure they are first and foremost saving the time of the reader (Rimland, 2007, p. 24) (italics mine). In most cases, the reference interview is the most obvious reference desk tool librarians use to meet this rule. Definitions of this technique vary; one common definition discusses the communication techniques used to help extrapolate readers' information needs, another defines it as a technique used "to translate the patron's question into one that can be answered with the library's resources" (Brown, 2008, p. 1), while still another mentions specific sets of behaviors that should be used to ensure information gets into the hands of patrons (Ross, 1998, p. 1). Regardless of the myriad definitions, the services at the 21st century reference desk must continue to have the goal of, and be able to show that, they are saving the time of the reader.

In considering Ranganathan's laws and in bandying about, and researching, the changing face of reference services, a few common drawbacks to the traditional reference desk model emerged:

* The reference desk itself is a physical barrier to patrons (O' Gorman, 2009, p. 333). Any theoretical change should take note of this obstacle and limit any additional barriers to the patron coming in contact with the librarian.

* There is no limit to the variety of communication that takes place between patrons and librarians at the reference desk. Despite librarians' attempts at best reference interview practice, miscommunication and delays are still possible in matching the user with their information.

* Hernon and McClure studied reference desk transactions and found that only 55% of the time librarians were able to help patrons find the information they needed (Ross, 1998, p.1).

In the face of these reference desk realities, it is not unfathomable to try new ideas with the hope of attaining more successful reference interactions. As new technologies for reference service become available, the format and duration of the reference interview may change, but the basic need for a thorough exchange of ideas between patron and librarian remains the same. With Web 2.0 technologies changing at the speed of light, the need for innovative reference interview techniques will increase. Collaborative reference will become increasingly important as these technologies develop.

What do librarians need to acknowledge about today's reference environment in order to provide the best service?

First, it is a myth that the Internet has made the library a self-service environment, e.g. that library technologies such as online catalogs and databases have made navigating the library so simple that a reference interview is rarely needed.

Some patrons feel that they should already know how to find information in a library and are afraid to ask for help. Even patrons that have used libraries previously may be unfamiliar with constantly changing electronic interfaces and library terminology such as "catalog," "interlibrary loan" and "databases." A completely self-service environment only serves to support the myth that patrons should know how to use a library, and provides an additional communication barrier between the patron and the librarian.

Dewdney and Mitchell studied reference desk transactions in public libraries. One of their findings was that "neither librarians nor users could initially predict how difficult a question might be to answer" (Kluge, 2003, p. 42). If patrons don't know what they are looking for, and librarians don't know what patrons are looking for, a lot of time can be wasted without the reference interview. Since nobody can predict the complexity of the question, any attempt to bypass the reference interview is in direct conflict with Ranganathan's fourth law of saving the time of the reader. The patron can lose a lot of time following false leads and using inappropriate search terms.

Regardless of how simple we believe library technology and systems are, the one way to ensure saving the time of the reader is to apply a reference interview for every transaction, thus providing users ample opportunity to expand, clarify, broaden or narrow their questions (Kluegel, 2003, p.38)

Another myth is that patrons are savvy computer users and therefore know how to use a library. If they do need assistance, it will likely be only a directional question.

This myth reflects the theory behind Patrick Wilson's "face value rule:" Reference service should only seek to give the patron exactly what they ask for even if it's not what they really need. Interpretation of the question is therefore not the problem of the librarian (Kluegel, 2003, p. 38). While on its face it may appear to save the time of patrons, if they need to return to find more relevant information sources, their time has been wasted.

Many patrons do come to the library with quite a bit of online experience, but, in some respects, since the web is organized quite differently than a library, patrons may have a false sense of knowledge about the library. For example, a patron may have conducted a search for their topic on Google and found 3000 web documents. However, when they run the same search string in the library catalog, they find nothing. Their "success" in Google has given them a confidence in online searching that may not apply in the library.

Further, with the proliferation of the Internet, patrons are more likely to have done some of the searching on their own. They come to a librarian when they are truly stumped or when they have not found what they are looking for on the web (Rimland, 2007, p. 25). This gives the librarian a chance to conduct an appropriate interview and help educate the user in library search tools. Since many patrons come in with some of the background searching done on the Internet, ready...

To continue reading