by Tony New
Information Resources Librarian, Bedford Public Library

To bring the current state of the Reference Desk, and the future of the Reference Collection, into focus, think about your library then ask yourself, “In the last month, …

…how many times have I used Google? “
…how many times have I used either the TexShare Databases or a locally purchased database?”

Now ask yourself, “During the same period, how many times have I used a book, any book, from the Reference Section?”

If you’re like most of us, the number of times you have used Google, or an online database far outweighs the number of times you’ve pulled a book off the Reference shelf for a patron. Depending on the book, you may have had to blow the dust bunnies off the top of the page block before opening it to the index. And then, if you were helping a younger patron, you may have had to brush off those rusty Bibliographic Instruction skills and explain “indexes” were what we used before there was Google. There is no longer a question about whether or not the Internet will revolutionize how we do Reference, it is now a question of how much further the revolution will go and whether we adapt or not.

It may help to remember that once upon a time, other “revolutions” have occurred. Some have lasted, some have vanished, and some have evolved: the idea of a free library open to the general public, the Dewey Decimal System, the 3x5 catalog card, typewriters, MARC records and the idea of shared cataloging, Cataloging In Print information in every book, the ISBN, the online catalog, microfilm, microfiche, microprint, vinyl records, reel-to-reel, cassettes, 8-tracks, CDs, filmstrips, 16mm films, film loop cartridges, beta tapes, VHS tapes, DVDs, Blu-ray. Remember when we started doing telephone reference and people in library land were shocked at the idea that people would want information over the phone?! What kind of crazy idea was it that someone would not physically come to the library to get information? GASP! The Horror!

Our patrons’ expectations have always been in flux. Technology is always going to change our world. But one basic fact remains. There will always be people who need to find information and there will always be someone who needs help using the tools necessary to locate that information. The details of our jobs will change but the basic function of connecting patrons with information and with materials remains the same. Skeptical? Then let’s use my library as a test case and let’s examine a typical day at our “Information Desk” a.k.a “The Reference Desk”


Today at the “desk” Blast from the Past
How do I use the online catalog? What are all these cards in drawers?
How do I use this database? How do I use the Guide to Periodic Literature?
Where are the Mysteries? … the Romances? …the Science Fiction? …the resume books? … the job hunting books? … the books on remodeling your home? … the easy readers? …the picture books? (well you get the point) Where are the Mysteries? … the Romances? …the Science Fiction? …the resume books? … the job hunting books? … the books on remodeling your home? … the easy readers? …the picture books?
What is the next book in this series? You check NoveList or the author’s website or the publisher’s website or a fan website or or…well you get the idea. What is the next book in this series? (You grab the latest edition of What do I read next? and hope that it has the information.)
Could you add paper to the printer? Can I borrow some paper and whiteout for the typewriter?
I’m sorry but we don’t have that book here in the library. However, You can download this title in PDF format, drive to a neighboring library to get the book, or we can order it for you in through Interlibrary Loan. I’m sorry but we don’t have that book.
Do you have Microsoft Word on your computers? Do you have a typewriter?
Do you have a scanner? Fax Machine? Photocopy machine? Color printers? Color photocopy machine? Do you have a Xerox machine?
Can I get this article in full text online? Do you have this article on microfilm?
Do you have an encyclopedia? Can I check it out? Do you have an online version? Where are the encyclopedias?
Where is the library? What’s the library’s Blog address? Where can I find the library’s Flickr photos? Are you on MySpace? FaceBook? What’s the IM ID for the Reference Desk? What’s your email address? What is your website address? Where is the library? What is your phone number?
I need help printing off this job application from the Acme website. (You approach the task and look at a website you’ve never seen before, using your knowledge of how websites are constructed, standard hiring procedures, standard windows print commands, how PDF files work, and figure out the answer that the patron didn’t have enough background knowledge to figure out.) The patron is happy and impressed at your skills. I need help with this research paper. (You approach the task and use a pile of books and magazines you’ve never seen before, using your knowledge of indexes, tables of contents, standard bibliographic procedures, standard citation and footnote formats and answer the question that the patron didn’t have the background knowledge to figure out.) The patron is happy and impressed at your skills.

A review of the literature indicates several trends for libraries:

  • The number of “traditional” reference questions is declining.
  • Paper reference collections are shrinking.
  • The use of online electronic resources is increasing, both in the form of free online resources and subscription databases.
  • The traditional reference questions which remain are often more complex.
  • Reference desks are busier than ever.
  • Reference desks are expanding the variety of services they provide. (Fax services for example)
  • Libraries are increasingly adopting a range of technologies and increasingly offering some form of “virtual” reference.
    o Email
    o Instant Messaging (IM)
    o Texting
    o Info Kiosks with IM capability in Malls and Hotels
  • Reader’s Advisory is increasing.
  • Many libraries are experimenting with a “single point of service” combining either Circulation functions with Reference, or combining Adult and Children’s Reference, or combining all three functions.
  • Many public libraries have assigned management of the library’s public computers to the Reference staff. Reference Staff are increasingly functioning as trainers in a wide range of topics related to computers, application software, databases, and the Internet.

At a recent NTRLS meeting I was talking shop with my fellow Reference Librarians and asked if they were weeding their Reference Collections and if they were seeing changes in the way patrons are seeking assistance. “Are they ever!” was the resounding answer. While my survey was highly unscientific, I concluded that the trends reported in the literature do accurately reflect trends in this area as well. One of the articles I found was entitled “Are Reference Desks Dying Out?” My answer is “No” but they are changing!


Bibliography / Further Reading

Banks, Julie, and Carl Pracht. "Reference Desk Staffing Trends: A Survey." Reference & User Services Quarterly 48, no. 1 (Fall2008 2008): 54-59. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost

Barack, Lauren. "Virtual Stacks Go Live." School Library Journal 52, no. 12 (December 2006): 26-26. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost

Bourdon, Cathleen. "Web-Based Reference." American Libraries 37, no. 6 (June 2006): 95-95. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost

Carlson, Scott. "Are Reference Desks Dying Out?." Chronicle of Higher Education 53, no. 33 (April 20, 2007): A37-A39. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost

Dalston, Teresa, and Michael Pullin. "Virtual Reference on a Budget: Case Studies." Library Media Connection 27, no. 2 (October 2008): 30-33. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost

"DOING VIRTUAL REFERENCE Along With Everything Else." Computers in Libraries 29, no. 1 (January 2009): 8-31. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost

Flanagan, Pat, and Lisa R. Horowitz. "Exploring New Service Models: Can Consolidating Public Service Points Improve Response to Customer Needs?." Journal of Academic Librarianship 26, no. 5 (September 2000): 329. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost

Hisle, W. Lee. "Reference Questions in the Library of the Future." Chronicle of Higher Education 52, no. 6 (September 30, 2005): B6-B8. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost

Kern, Kathleen, Virtual Reference Best Practices: Tailoring Services to Your Library ISBN: 9780838909751

Lindsay, Elizabeth Blakesley. "Reference Anywhere, Anytime: Recent Works on Virtual Reference." Public Services Quarterly 4, no. 4 (December 2008): 377-380. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost

McDermott, Irene Elizabeth, The Librarian's Internet Survival Guide: Strategies for the High-tech Reference Desk , 2nd ed. ISBN: 9781573872355

Nicholson, Scott, and R. David Lankes. "The Digital Reference Electronic Warehouse Project." Reference & User Services Quarterly 46, no. 3 (Spring2007 2007): 45-59. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost

Schnall, Sharon N. "Libraries enter new age." Crain's Cleveland Business 27, no. 8 (February 20, 2006): 16-16. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost

Sobotincic, Marilyn. "Oh, the Joy of Reference Questions!." Children & Libraries: The Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children 4, no. 3 (Winter2006 2006): 64-64. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost

Thomsett-Scott, Beth, and Patricia E. Reese. "Changes in Library Technology and Reference Desk Statistics: Is There a Relationship?." Public Services Quarterly 2, no. 2/3 (April 2006): 143-165. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed March 27, 2009).

Vilelle, Luke, and Christopher C. Peters. "Don't Shelve the Questions Defining Good Customer Service for Shelvers." Reference & User Services Quarterly 48, no. 1 (Fall2008 2008): 60-67. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost

Wright, Adam “Web 2.0: An Introduction” default.asp?action=article&ID=202

Zabel, Diane. "Trends in Reference and Public Services Librarianship and the Role of RUSA Part One." Reference & User Services Quarterly 45, no. 1 (Fall2005 2005): 7-10. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost

Zabel, Diane. "Trends in Reference and Public Services Librarianship and the Role of RUSA, Part Two." Reference & User Services Quarterly 45, no. 2 (Winter2005 2005): 104-107. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost



Original Publication Date: 
April 1, 2009
Legacy Article Number: