Challenges, Opportunities and Changes in Reference Services: Or, … What the Hatch Marks Don’t Tell Us
One of the major challenges for reference managers, (especially for me today), is to articulate effectively the nature and value of reference services and the complex relationship between reference statistics, staffing level requirements and, of greatest importance -- the changing needs of our users. I only have time today to begin, what I hope will be, an open dialog on these critical topics. The theme of my comments is Challenges, Opportunities and Changes in Reference Services. The subversive subtitle is What the Hatch Marks Don’t Tell Us. My focus will be upon Olin & Uris reference services, but I think that some of my remarks will resonate with other IRIS units and I hope we will have time to discuss some of the similarities and differences at the end of our presentations.
The service trend table in last year’s CUL Annual Report indicates that the reference statistics we reported to ARL declined– approx. 12% from 2002/03 – 2003/04. It is understandable that staff who are not deeply engaged in providing reference services, or administrators who are hard-pressed to work within constrained budgets while striving to develop innovative new services, may assume that reference is an area where staff may be cut or reallocated. While this view may seem logical, I would like to suggest that after we examine together what these numbers are telling us, and what they might not be telling us, we may reach a different conclusion.
The decreasing numbers simply tell us that users have multiple information sources to turn to for their information needs and that direct, quantifiable, person-to-person contacts with reference staff have decreased in number.
The numbers do not tell us about the amount of time spent meeting with and preparing to meet with each user, or about the quality of the service provided, or the depth of knowledge required to meet the users’ information or research need, and the time needed to obtain and maintain that expertise. The hatch marks on our statistics sheets neither reflect nor express what is entailed in managing these critical services and the skill and time required to develop and deliver them and to adapt them over time in response to, and in anticipation of, changing needs.
The numbers also do not tell us about the value of the service to the user, or changes in their information-seeking behavior in the library, or about the changing nature of the questions they ask. [A brief comment: We were happy to see some examples of them placed in the new library guide.]
What we are observing is that library patrons have high expectations when they take the time and trouble to approach us for assistance. They are usually at their maximum point of need in the research process. They expect service at all hours and in all modes – in-person, online, or through the telephone. They do not come one at a time and they expect convenience and are often impatient if they have to wait or if they have to be referred multiple times, to reach the staff with the skill or knowledge they need. They often cannot afford the time to make an appointment for a research consultation. They want human expertise to be as accessible as possible in the same way they’ve come to expect all information online. By the time they contact us they have often already taken care of their more basic information needs through web resources that are freely available or that have been produced and continually updated by library staff.
Over the past few years, we’ve noted an additional trend: The questions users ask are more complex, challenging or time consuming. Faculty assignments for undergraduates have become more sophisticated and demanding. They are often interdisciplinary. Patrons expect research to be easier, but the hybrid print and online environment is vastly more complex to navigate, search effectively and interpret than it was a mere five years ago. “Online” does not necessarily mean “easy-to-find.” Readily accessible human expertise has never been in greater need. It is a critical component of the research, teaching and learning mission of the university and is what distinguishes a library from a mere collection, especially in the digital age. The desk numbers may be decreasing, but the value to the user may well be increasing.
In fact, the decrease in reference statistics has been anticipated by reference staff and has provided a welcome opportunity to better meet the full range of our patrons’ needs, directly at our service desks and indirectly “behind the scenes.”
At our service desks we are now able to provide a more appropriate level and quality of service. We are able to spend more time with patrons when they need our help to find information, identify useful resources, refine search strategies, evaluate search results and track down the texts of the materials they need, online or in print. When traffic levels are less harried, our service is less fragmented. If we respond fully and effectively to 6 questions per hour, rather than provide quick, shallow answers to 10 questions per hour, our statistics may appear to have decreased 40% but the service is much better and more closely aligned with the evolving needs of our patrons.
Given more time, we also have the opportunity to teach patrons how to find high quality information on their own, in addition to providing the answers they need. We learned from the LibQual surveys that users place a high premium upon becoming self-reliant, independent information seekers and users. There are multiple avenues to help provide this capability for our patrons. When they are receptive, and we have the time at the reference desk, we integrate teaching to the greatest extent possible into the reference process. Many patrons we encounter have already learned the basics of research in our course-integrated bibliographic instruction program, but now need assistance working the concepts through their own specific topic at a more sophisticated level. Our hope is that they will be able to work more independently on their next assignment – despite what that may do to our future reference statistics. In return, we can also spend more time on making the online environment a more intuitive place to navigate and use.
Digital reference, including chat and e-mail, is an increasingly important component of our services. It’s an opportunity to reach out to users and provide service in their digital space when and where they’re interacting with the resources they need. The irony is that these modes of communication are more time-consuming than in-person transactions. Although the hourly numbers may not be striking, survey results consistently indicate that our time is well-spent and our patrons’ response to these services is overwhelmingly positive. Pundits predict that digital reference may someday exceed the number of in-person/in-building transactions. We are a long way from there, but we need to stay ahead of the curve by devoting staff resources now to assess and plan these services and to experiment with ways of making digital services as effective and efficient as possible (e.g. collaborations, knowledge-bases, preformatted response files).
Behind the scenes , away from the desk, reference staff all over campus do an enormous amount of work that is focused upon meeting our users’ information and learning needs. This out-put is not reflected in our statistics, and herein lies some of the misconceptions about what we do.
Staff need time continually to learn about information resources and to broaden and deepen their reference skills. The statistics don’t reflect the effort entailed in attending or providing training sessions, or learning about a steady stream of new reference books and innumerable new and changing databases and web sources each year.
One hatch mark on a statistical sheet may represent hours of research preparation and contact time with a patron for a research consultation, or meeting with a faculty member, to design a class, produce a customized web site and teach the students.
A single hatch mark may represent sustained effort in developing a tutorial, a subject guide or an outreach page for faculty. So this is my question: How can we move ahead with producing innovative, creative tools that patrons can use to find information on their own if our staffing level is tied only to statistics for users who cannot find information on their own?
Reference staff are also increasingly engaged in responsibilities, such as collection development, that are not strictly defined as “reference.” The new merger of Collection Development, Reference, Instruction and Outreach in IRIS will enable us increasingly to integrate these functional areas. The LARIS survey indicated that some of the librarians from the previous “reference department” spend only about 25% of their time directly engaged in what was traditionally defined as reference activities.
In addition to collection development, reference, outreach and instruction, reference staff are also designing library gateway pages, maintaining the opac interface, designing the Encompass system, producing help documentation, all of which take a lot of time and are vital resources that enable patrons to find information independently. We are also running multiple computer labs, and citation management and alumni service programs. Developing, managing and assessing all of these services, and the complex infrastructure, communication and training required to provide them does not result in many hatch marks. In fact, the more successful we are with these critical endeavors, and the better we design our services, the more our statistics should decrease.
Interestingly enough, a lot of this “behind the scenes” work often goes on, undetected, right at the reference desk. Reference staff are adept at appearing to be welcoming and readily available for patrons at the desk in between questions. The casual observer strolling by may wonder why that expensive reference librarian appears to be “doing nothing.” Those who can see beyond our artfully arranged demeanor will learn that reference staff are masters of multi-tasking and are taking advantage of every spare moment to fulfill an increasing multiplicity of responsibilities. This is also true of our reference assistants. Staff study new resources and work on research referrals, reference e-mail, consultations, class web pages and collection development in between the in-person contacts we have at the desk. Patrons need reference staff to be easily accessible and reference staff need to work directly with patrons several hours a week to keep up their skills and to engage continually in an increasingly complex array of print and online reference resources. Reference assistants need reference librarians to be readily available for consultation and referral. We could not manage our digital reference service program if, for example, reference assistants in Uris library were not able to respond to e-mail in between the in-person transactions at the reference desk. The challenge is always to balance productivity with accessibility for our patrons.
I’ve outlined a variety of challenges reference staff having been facing in the last several years. It is equally important to share information on what reference staff are, and have been, doing to anticipate, plan for and respond to changing user needs. Although I’ve been trying to convey what statistics do not tell us, they are an important management tool when used appropriately.
We’ve been tracking statistics by the hour to help facilitate staffing decisions and have made several major reductions and reallocations as a result, including changing or eliminating service hours, reducing multiple staffing levels, and expanding the use of student information assistants. Over the last few years, we strategically reduced the number of service hours provided by librarians & reference assists in Uris by 24%. When Uris hours were expanded, we extended a basic level of information service, provided by students, that now comprises 43% of our service hours there. In addition we have developed a collaborative information services programs with Access Services staff to provide basic on-site technical support, information and referral assistance for patrons when we have no reference coverage.
We have also been tracking mode of patron contact to better understand their communication needs and preferences. Examples of changes made as a result of this data analysis include shifting staff away from service desks into digital reference services or adding digital reference to quieter service desks to expand evening hours. We increased e-mail reference response time by adjusting the workflow and have seen an 8% increase in that mode of contact.
Our “ integrated, tiered” model of staffing is an ideal that has been studied and emulated by other libraries and has been strengthened by constant in-person and online communication. We are even using Instant Messenging among service points to create a stronger link between Olin & Uris reference and to strengthen our on-call system for librarians, enabling them to work in their offices during quieter times. Innovative online training modules, communication bulletin boards and question logs have been developed to create a virtual reference staff presence for our student information assistants, resulting in a higher skill level and accountability for our late night staff. These creative tools have enabled us to make more strategic use of support staff and students in the provision of information services, while still assuring quality, and freeing up librarians’ to pursue myriad other responsibilities that require increasing commitments of time.
Looking beyond the reference service points, Anne Kenney has initiated an effort to collect data from all of our service areas to get a more complete picture of the range of services being provided throughout the library, including Access Services and Media desks, as well as collection development staff and curators who consult extensively with scholars in their offices. And we will experiment with breaking down our data by the amount of time spent on different types of queries, including technical support transactions to better understand staffing and training implications.
Trying to find some way to track the use of our digital resources is also critically important. It is often difficult to draw clear conclusions from this kind of data, and relatively low use does not necessarily mean low value. However, it is worth noting that over the past year (July 2004-July 2005) 8 of the top 25 most requested Library web pages were for reference research tools. More work obviously needs to be done in this tantalizing area, but it is only one of many.
The challenges are great and opportunities abound. The face of reference is surely changing, but the value of our services for patrons has not diminished. And I hope I’ve made it clear today that our transaction statistics truly do not provide the whole picture.
[Presented by N. Skipper, to Sarah Thomas, at the IRIS Management Group Meeting panel presentation on public services, August 4, 2005]
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