InfoServe 2.1 February 1995
Alane Wilson, Manager
changes the way librarians work
MacKimmie Library Information Center &
Liaison Librarian for Education and Continuing Education
Have you ever wondered why the staff at a University Library reference desk
are there? I don't mean the obvious: that they are there to answer questions.
Have you wondered why there are, say, four people at the desk, or wondered
if these people are library assistants or librarians, or wondered what particular
expertise belongs to the person who helped you? Many university faculty
and students assume that people who work at a library service desk are librarians.
Most people have an inkling that the changing nature of information delivery,
from print-based to a variety of electronic delivery mechanisms, means fundamental
change to the way all library workers operate. Every person you see behind
a reference desk has recognized - whether fearfully, enthusiastically, or
reluctantly - that libraries of all kinds must undergo change to survive
into the next millenium. What we're not so sure about is how best to change
to not only ensure survival, but to ensure our relevance among the burgeoning
hosts of information providers, including cable companies, CD-ROM encyclopedias,
"knowbots" which will search the vast deeps of the Internet like
so many Captain Ahabs, and info-kiosks in post offices. Add to this, ever-reducing
staffing levels, static (and therefore shrinking) collections budgets, and
the perilous state of the collections themselves as acidic paper crumbles
into dust (just to name a few of the monsters under our bed), and you have
a situation which demands significant readjustments in the approach to the
delivery of information services.
We have been examining the organizational structure of the MacKimmie Library
for several years and, in the past year, tried to find better ways to deliver
high-quality reference service without additional library assistants and
librarians, and without exhausting the existing reference staff. In 1988,
the MacKimmie Library consolidated the area library reference desks into
one main reference desk on the second floor of the Library Block. Staff
providing reference services at that service point were librarians or library
assistants, all of whom had varying levels of expertise in the panoply of
subject areas covered in a large library. Subject librarians provided specialized
research help when the nature of the question warranted this.
There is nothing wrong with this model. Those of us who work on the desk
are good at answering general questions; most staff, assistants and librarians,
have considerable expertise in a group of subjects. Last year, the Information
Centre desk staff answered about 80,000 in-person questions; however, academic
library staff have many other library and university responsibilities. Librarians
need more time to identify and meet the information needs of students and
faculty; to develop user education which will be delivered in a variety
of settings and which will employ different technologies; and to build partnerships
both among colleagues in the library system, and with logical partners elsewhere
on campus and beyond.
The shift to the new reality in the provision of reference services at the
MacKimmie Library Information Centre may not look different to our clientele.
There are still several people behind the desk who will do their best to
assist researchers. However, almost all the staff will be library assistants
during the core service hours of 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The primary responsibility
of these people will be to provide on-demand, general reference assistance,
and to facilitate in-depth research assistance by referring students and
faculty to appropriate subject librarians.
The fundamental shift contained in this staffing change is from the physical
concept of the desk as the basis for conducting reference services, to the
idea of reference as a network of activities, encompassing a range of possible
interactions, virtual or otherwise. Reference can be conducted by electronic
mail, fax, or in person, and, by releasing reference from being an in-the-library
interaction, we hope to provide more timely responses. We also want to encourage
partnerships with faculty on information-based projects. We hope faculty
will realize that we are like doctors of a generation ago: we make house
calls. Establishing partnerships with other members of the university community
will build effective teams for advancing teaching and scholarship.
Librarians must take the lead in envisioning, developing, and operating
methods of delivering library and other information to our community of
users wherever they may be. In the parallel universe known as the Internet,
making sense of the astronomical number of information sources will require
a kind of knowledge cartography; fortunately, librarians are already skilled
in mapping the sources and routes of information. The rethinking of reference
undertaken by the staff of the MacKimmie Library Information Centre will
allow for the invention of new maps and new methods of delivering information.
If you have thoughts about what we could do better, or what we don't do
but you think we should, I would like to hear from you. As we steer the
library into the next century, we need assistance from students, staff,
and faculty in making sure we are relevant to the mission of the university,
and in our own mission of being leaders in connecting people and information.
For more information, please contact Alane Wilson, 220-3460, e-mail: