In their research, Christina Holm and Sarah Kantor point out that, if you’re an academic librarian, you’ve probably heard some version of the phrase “reference is dead.” Claims of the death of reference have been around for decades, and many reference collections, services, and desks have diminished or changed dramatically.
Despite the predictions and proclamations, reference services in academic libraries persist. Whether they offer live chat, on-call reference, scheduled office hours, drop-in consultations, merged service desks, or a plain old stand-alone reference desk, most academic libraries haven’t fully given up on reference. And they shouldn’t. Holm and Kantor point out that “as long as patrons exist, they will have questions; this is particularly true in academic libraries, where many patrons have just begun to learn research methodologies."
Holm and Kantor’s study found that most students in their library preferred a visible, staffed reference desk. But this was pre-Covid. As campuses closed and classrooms shifted to online learning, academic librarians had to find other ways to stay connected to students and keep students connected to the library. Many librarians retooled chat services to provide more hours and accessibility. And their efforts often paid off. The University of Calgary’s library saw chat services increase by 246% during the first year of the pandemic.
Few people would argue that more student questions, whether at the desk or online, is bad. In fact, for many librarians, myself included, reference work is at the core of our professional identities. But the reality of increased reference interactions quickly crashes against another reality—librarians are spread thin. Many have long been expected to “do more with less,” a situation that has gotten more extreme as people retire or take new jobs. Positions once seen as essential,including at the reference desk, are unfilled. Core services have trickled down to other librarians, paraprofessional staff, and student employees.
So, students want reference services, but staff numbers are limited. What can you do? Here are a few tips to help you meet student needs without overtaxing an already stretched staff.
Help students find librarians.
There’s a reason the first point in RUSA’s reference service guidelines is “visibility”. Many patrons, including students, think anyone who works in a library is a librarian. Students may not know who to turn to for in-depth reference questions, so make it easier for them. Post office hours and contact information widely, and be sure front desk employees, many of whom are students themselves, know how to refer patrons to you. Some librarians have experimented with regular office hours, individualized appointments, or remote reference services in other buildings on campus to increase visibility.
Consistent training = consistent services.
Holm and Kantor cite research showing increased reference transactions when everyone is trained. The University of Calgary ensured “librarians, support staff, and student employees from all library locations” were trained to expand chat reference during the pandemic. Simply put, training matters. Effective training ensures consistent services, no matter how students contact the library or who they’re talking with. Training is especially important if student employees are staffing the reference desk—which happens more and more as professional positions remain unfilled. At Niche Academy, our training helps student employees understand the basics of reference, how to manage referrals, and core ethical principles like privacy so they can offer excellent customer service.
Constant training = stronger skills.
Many of us are used to once-a-semester or other one-and-done training, but complex services like reference benefit from constantly available, on-demand training—especially if you have a rotating group of student employees. Short, repeatable tutorials keep core concepts fresh and are great for employees who aren’t well-versed in how reference transactions and referrals work. Staff can revisit lessons and activities as needed to ensure they provide the best service possible.
Offer chat services.
Virtual reference services became a lifeline to the library during the pandemic. And, even before Covid, some students just preferred chatting. I used to get a kick out of chatting with a student I knew was in the library but didn’t want to come to the physical desk. Some libraries now offer 24/7 chat to meet student needs. But even if you can’t do that, you can standardize virtual reference services so that the quality of interactions is consistently high, whether you or a student employee behind the screen.
Build on what works.
If you're happy with your reference services and—more importantly— if your students are happy, great! It’s amazing to know you’re meeting patron needs and supporting student success. Grow that success by offering resources students don’t even know they need, like e-resource tutorials that support research or guides tailored to specific courses or projects. Or, curate ready-reference guides to help front desk staff make efficient referrals or provide easy answers.
Reference services are only as valuable as the people offering them. A focus on reference is a focus on you. Even if you’re stretched thin, which so many academic librarians are, your skills, training, and expertise can help you manage your time and impact student success—at and beyond the desk.