From InfoServe 2.1 February 1995

Information delivery
changes the way librarians work

Alane Wilson, Manager
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: