or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk




Update on Eliminating Our Reference Collection

   April 7th, 2011 Brian Herzog

What the former reference area looks like nowThis might be my longest post ever, but I've got a lot to talk about. My library just finished a major project I mentioned earlier this year - the three parts of this project were:

  • Revamp the reference collection, to make the majority of it circulating and interfiled with the regular non-fiction collection
  • Use the space formerly housing the reference collection to make popular subjects easier to find and use
  • Build new study rooms

Because we were moving so much material around, all of this had to happen at the same time (although it dragged out a couple extra months because of problems with the building contractor). A breakdown of what we did is below, and you can see photos of the construction, and some "before" pictures.

Rethinking Reference

For the last few years, it was pretty clear that our reference collection was underused (which is an understatement). There were many times I would take a patron over there, hand them the book and point to the information they were looking for, but when they found out the book couldn't leave the library, their response was, "nevermind, I'll just look it up on the internet."

That drove me crazy, but also illustrated that our collection no longer met the needs of our community. For better or worse, books they couldn't take home were useless to them, and for me to keep spending thousands of dollars on it was wasting their tax dollars.

So the plan we came up with was to convert about 90% of the "reference" collection to books that could be checked out and taken home. The only thing that remained as "library use only" are our current encyclopedias (Britannica and World Book), almanacs (The Old Farmer's Almanac and the World Almanac), statistics books (Statistical Abstract of the United States), and also our ready-reference collection.

The rest of the reference collection fell into one of three categories:

  • Weeded - I'd estimate that at least half of our collection went this route. We had a lot of space for reference books, so I tended to hang onto them much longer than I should have. Also, for the last couple years I was buying more for non-fiction than reference, so in quite a few instances we had a newer edition in non-fiction than the reference edition
  • Converted to regular non-fiction - about 20%-40% of the collection were converted to regular non-fiction books. I made an effort to put as much into this category as I could, because these would be the most useful to patrons
  • Made "7 Day Loan" - this was a new item type we created as a result of this project. Into this category when all the big sets, expensive books, or books that we used a lot but not enough to keep as ready-reference. Each of these books got a bright red "7 Day Loan" sticker on the spine, and circulate under three caveats:
    • They circulate for 7 days - by allowing limited circulation, they will be more useful to patrons, and we'll get a better value for the money we spend on them
    • They are non-requestable - because we're part of a consortium, making them non-requestable means they're more likely to be available when a local patron or staff needs them. However, if another library calls and asks us to set a book aside for a patron because they're coming to pick it up, we will
    • They are non-renewable - again, the goal here is to make sure there is turnover on these books, and that they are available to most people most of the time. We did need to create a new "24 hour waiting period" for checkouts though - when a patron returns a 7 Day Loan book, they need to wait 24 hours before they can check it out again - otherwise, one patron could monopolize a resource, and I wanted to avoid that

Since the non-fiction collection would be absorbing a lot of newly recataloged books, the Reference staff spent months weeding that collection also, and got rid of a ton of outdated or underused books. Then, as Tech Services recataloged books either as regular non-fiction or 7 Day Loan books, Reference staff would interfile them with the regular non-fiction collection.

This is really my favorite part of the project, because it means all books on a topic were in one place, instead of having to show patrons the non-fiction books, then walk them across the room to show them the same Dewey number in the Reference Collection.

Space, and How to Best Fill it

As the Reference area cleared out, we had a lot of floor space we could now repurpose. I had two ideas for this.

1. More Study Rooms
View from the Reference Desk of the three new study room being builtBy far, the biggest unmet need in my department was for quiet study rooms. We had one room that people could reserve, but it was always booked. It was definitely a hot commodity, and we sometimes had mild altercations between tutors or students or parents, who all wanted to use the room.

This need had been growing over the years (and especially in the summers), and money finally became available in our budget to build new study rooms. Given the space available, we decided on three new 8' x 8' rooms. Each room had two chairs and a work counter along one wall - this maximized table space, without actually putting a table in the room (which would have required the rooms to be bigger to make them ADA-compliant). We also wired all the rooms with power outlets and ethernet jacks (above the counters to make them easy to access), and put a clock and recycle bin in each room. For security, the fronts of each room are floor-to-ceiling glass, which many tutors actually thanked us for.

These rooms are now almost constantly in use, and being able to accommodate the needs of our patrons - instead of always apologizing for our limited resources, feels really good.

2. Subject Tables
New study tablesWe built the study rooms along the back wall of the Reference area, which left open floor space between them and the Reference Desk. Into this space went three new index tables (basically, a table with a book shelf down the center). I like these tables because they let you combine a book collection with a work surface. They are also low and open, and therefore inviting and easy to use.

These three tables became "subject tables" for some of our commonly-used collection areas - career resources, auto repair, genealogy, and maps (continuing what we started in 2009).

The tables were lined up in such a way that each section got its own little pod, along with clear signage. We also created new call numbers for each subject, so patrons searching the catalog would know they were in a special section. The system we used is roughly:

  • Career/331.702 and Career/650.14 - plus a few stragglers from other Dewey numbers
  • Car Repair/629.287
  • Genealogy/929
  • Maps/910 and Maps/911 - plus a few others, with more to come including a lot of atlases that ended up being banished to the Oversized collection

By just appending logical subject words to the beginning of the Dewey numbers, we were able to make things easier to find without reinventing the wheel. This allowed us to get things recataloged quicker, and kept my Cataloger from tampering with my car's brake lines.

A couple happy results of the layout of our building and the tables: the table closest the Reference Desk is where I put the remainder of our Reference collection - the encyclopedia, almanacs and statistical books. This is the best place for them, so I was happy it worked out. On the other end of the tables is where I put the Genealogy books, which just happens to be right outside of our Local History Room. Again, not exactly just a happy accident, but really the best place for them considering the patrons that use both of those collections.

So Far, So Good

The project took longer than it should have, and the transition period was rocky at times. The biggest complaints (from both patrons and staff) were:

  • weeding so many books in such a short period
  • letting expensive books be checked out
  • not having a reference collection
  • building study rooms instead of spending that money on something else

Through it all, I kept coming back to my bottom line: the needs of our patrons have changed, and we need to change too. No one uses reference books, and everyone wants quiet study rooms.

Now that things have been in place for a month or so, I think everyone is adjusting to the changes. I honestly still do cringe any time I see a middle school kid walking out with a Grzimek's volume under his arm, but I also know that patron is far better served by being able to take that book home.

One last detail: total cost for the construction of the three study rooms, plus purchase of the custom-made wooden subject table and chairs, ran about $16,000. This doesn't factor in all the staff time involved in weeding, shifting, recataloging, or other duties, but I think this is not only a great investment, but a small price to pay to make sure our library evolves to continue to serve the needs of our patrons.

I'm sorry this post was so long, and sorrier that I know I left important parts out. If anyone has any questions about this project, my goals or logic, or how things have been going, please let me know.



Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,



Reference Question of the Week – 3/27/11

   April 2nd, 2011 Brian Herzog

Lifehacker QR Code #1Instead of a reference question, here's something in honor of April 1st:

Yesterday, Lifehacker posted an April Fools QR Code Internet Scavenger Hunt - the point is to find and decode a series of QR codes hidden on various websites. But the trick is that you not only need to decipher the clues, but use reference skills to search and find the right websites.

It was fun, and the information provided in the clues is remarkably similar to library reference transactions - cryptic and obscure, but usually enough to go on.

So test out your reference skills - it's fun. It's also a very good example of how a library can use QR codes for an enjoyable and engaging project.

It would have also been interesting to sort of track peoples' search techniques and strategies, to see if librarians are any better at something like this than anyone else.

Bonus
The article also linked to a handy online QR code decoder - neat.



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,



Out With The Old, In With The New

   January 4th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Emptying the Reference AreaThis project has been underway at my library for the last month or two, and the beginning of a new year seems like a very appropriate time to mention it. We are in the process of removing our Reference shelves so we can repurpose the space.

This is a major project for us. It was brought about by two main factors:

  • The community primarily uses my library for popular materials and assistance with projects (homework, hobbies, etc) - hardly anyone does in-library research, so our Reference collection hardly every got used
  • Our patrons are constantly asking to reserve our (single) quiet study room, and we often had more requests for it than we could accommodate

So, we came up with a plan to build three new 8' x 8' study rooms. Big enough for one or two people, but small enough that we could fit more than one into the available space.

To make space for them, we developed a new approach (for us) to our Reference collection. For the last month or so, I've been weeding with these new criteria:

  • Anything that seemed like a reference book and could be easily photocopied - World Book and Encyclopedia Britannica, Farmer's Almanac, Statistical Abstract of the United States - remained "Reference" and will be shelved close to the Reference Desk (more on shelving in a minute)
  • Anything that seemed like a reference book but required more reading is being recataloged with a new "7 Day Loan" designation. These books will circulate for only 7 days (instead of our regular 3 week loan for books), but cannot be renewed or requested by other libraries. The goal here is to make the books more useful to people by letting patrons take them home when needed, but make the circulation rules such that the books will also get back on the shelves quickly and so be available when other patrons or staff need them. Also, very importantly, these will be interfiled on our regular non-fiction shelves, so all information on a subject will be same place*
  • Anything that wasn't pure reference, and didn't seem like something someone would need to lay their hands on immediately, was recataloged as regular circulating non-fiction. There were far more of these than the 7 Day Loan books, which I thought was a good thing
  • Everything else got weeded. I've been wanting to do this for the last few years, so have been slowly deemphasizing the Reference Collection by putting new books as they came in into our circulating collection. As a result, quite a few Reference books could be deleted because we already had newer editions in the circulating collection. Others got deleted because it was a duplicate copy, we had lots of other material on the subject, we had better resources available online, or it was simply outdated (I've been ordering new items as updates). Another criteria was the good old "dust test" - if blowing on the book produced a plume of dust, I took that as a sign that it was not used, and only kept it if I felt it was absolutely vital. This process illustrated how bad of a job I did with regularly weeding the Reference Collection, because we had lots of shelf space to keep things

My goal for this project, in addition to providing study space that our community is demanding, is to increase the usefulness of our entire collection by letting patrons use it the way they want to - at home. Also, by interfiling all of our material, hopefully the "reference" books will get a new lease on life, as many patrons previously couldn't even be enticed into the Reference area - more than once I handed a patron a reference book open to the page that answered their question, but since they couldn't take it home they wouldn't even look at it.

Of course, there have been problems, too. Most notably, we don't have the space on our non-fiction shelves to absorb all of the Reference books we're shifting down there. This prompted major weeding of the circulating collection (which, again, was probably overdue).

Another solution was to pull out discreet subjects and reshelve them elsewhere in the library. The study rooms we're building won't take up all of the floor space in the Reference area, so we're putting in three new index tables and using them as "subject tables." These subjects will be auto repair (629.287), career (331.702 and 650.14), genealogy (929, plus a few other hand-chosen items), and maps (mostly our oversized atlases, but also geography reference like the Columbia Gazetteer). All of the general encyclopedias and other books that are remaining true Reference items will also be on one of these tables.

Another issue has been peoples' concern about how many books we're getting rid of. It certainly has been a lot, and I understand why it might shock some people. But I'm evaluating the entire collection almost on a book-by-book basis, so I have a reason for every decision I made. Like I said above, usually it's because the book is out-of-date or we have enough complimentary materials and don't have room for everything. Again though, if I had been weeding properly all along, it wouldn't be such a monumental task right now.

We're still in the process of weeding, recataloging, and shifting. Construction of the new rooms is suppose to start next week, and everything should be finished by the end of the month. Transition periods are always difficult, but I think once things are finished our collection will be much better and more useful.

Something else that makes me happy is that all of these changes were driven by patron behavior. I'm glad that we can adapt to the changing needs our our community.

 


*Damn you, Oversized Books - you are the bane of my existence. Sadly, much of our recataloged Reference collection is ending up on our Oversized shelves, but that is a project for a later date.



Tags: , , , , , , ,



Salem Press Great Reference Idea Contest

   December 7th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Salem PressThe following came in email from Peter W. Tobey, Director of Sales & Marketing for Salem Press. I thought it was something worth publicizing and supporting - check it out:

The Great Reference Idea Contest

Salem is tinkering with a way to learn more about the changing landscape of reference. In this particular instance, we're wondering about what new content areas (or emphasis) might be on the minds of students, patrons and librarians. So, we're asking.

We'd like librarians to suggest titles and/or subject areas for new reference. Everything is on the table. Every idea is welcome, covering any subject. Our hope is that librarians will ask for the reference their patrons and students need but can't find.

WINNERS
The first three librarians whose suggestions on any specific subject become new Salem Press reference will receive that reference free. That's it, very simple: Be among the first three with an idea and we'll give you the reference when (and if) we publish it.

SUBMISSIONS
Librarians should email ptobey@salempress.com with their ideas. Librarians may submit as many ideas as they'd like. In fact, the more the merrier.

For a press release on the program, click Press Release. Hope you enjoy this...

Peter W. Tobey
Director, Sales & Marketing
Salem Press
Voice: (201) 968-9599
Email: ptobey@salempress.com

I appreciate publishers taking an interest in the development and future direction of the library world, and this cooperative approach to identify need, rather than just pushing whatever they have to sell.

I haven't come up with any earth-shattering ideas, but I'll definitely submit something.

(Image: energy-saving light bulb by AA, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from sloth_rider's photostream)



Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,



Performing Reference Triage

   October 26th, 2010 Brian Herzog

M*A*S*H fingerpostNELA2010 was last week, and I'm still mulling over ideas I learned there, trying to figure out if I can synthesize them for use in my library.

One that stood out came up during the audience participation portion of the Trends in Reference panel discussion. Demetri Kyriakis from the Morse Library in Natick, MA, mentioned "reference triage," and I followed up with him in the hall later in the day to get some more information.

This approach seems like it will help libraries with staff cuts or an awkwardly-located reference desk. The basic idea, as you can probably surmise, is to direct patrons to different staff members based on the difficulty of their question. Our Circ staff informally does this already, since that is the first service desk patrons see when they enter the library - Circ handles what it can, and sends the rest downstairs to Reference.

What was novel about Demetri 's approach is that he said there are some questions they just won't answer at the Reference Desk - the really time-intensive ones - because he just can't do them justice when he's alone and the library is busy.

Instead of giving the patron an incomplete answer, or making everyone else wait for a half-hour while he completes that question, he has the patron set up an appointment with him - at which time he's able to give them his undivided attention, and a full and unhurried answer.

I like that idea. We used to do something similar with our One-on-One computer sessions, until we had to discontinue those due to staff cuts. But there are sporadic times during the week with enough coverage desk that could allow me to get away for twenty or thirty minutes for a patron appointment.

Some examples of questions that would require an appointment:

  • Help with Overdrive (especially the people who are willing to learn all the steps it takes to do it right, not just the people who want to download something right now)
  • Help with job searching or creating a resume
  • Help with a digital camera
  • Help with genealogy
  • Learning Twitter/Facebook/et al.

Of course, making an appointment to come back later might not be every patron's idea of a good time. Hopefully they'd be able to see the trade-off between immediate incomplete help and an appointment for thorough assistance.



Tags: , , , ,



NELA2010: Trends in Reference

   October 19th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Pingsheng Chen and Laura KohlSession notes from a great NELA2010 interactive discussion on reference and where it's headed:

A panel of experienced reference librarians explores the ever-changing landscape of reference service, with particular emphasis on implementing new and emerging technologies. Panelists include Laura Kohl from Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, Eleanor Sathan from Memorial Hall Library in Andover, MA, and Pingsheng Chen from Worcester (MA) Public Library.

Laura Kohl - What Bryant University is Doing

  • Offer text (using a Droid rather than online), email, IM
  • Goal has been to differentiate librarians from Google and add value "Librarians: the thinking search engine"
  • Bryant's mission is to be high-touch and hands-on - they don't just offer access, they provide instruction to make sure people know how to use things
  • All reference desks computers are dual monitor/keyboard (one faces staff, one faces patron), so it's easy for students to participate in the search, rather than just watch
  • Use Jing to create on-the-fly instructional screencasts for chat and email reference questions. These are uploaded to Jing's server, which archives them for reuse

How to patrons know what is available? Marketing all over the place.

  • Word of mouth - go into classrooms, tell people it's okay to interrupt us"
  • Hang up tear-off sheets all around campus (including in the bathrooms)
  • Have imprinted scrap paper at the desk with library contact information at the bottom
  • Use Moo Cards for business cards to hand out. Also used clear labels to add more contact information to the back of the standard business cards
  • On Twitter, Facebook (include redundant links to everything, which helps when regular website is unavailable), integrate into Blackboard
  • Use digital signage using rotating powerpoints, images, or anything else - these are in the library and throughout campus
  • QR codes on signs to go to websites or download contact information into students' smart phones

How to measure success?

  • Qualitative - comments from students (email, texts, etc)
  • Quantitative - track stats (face-to-face, phone, text, email, IM) - face-to-face is going down but students staying longer, and IMs are way up

Pingsheng Chen - What Worcester Library is Doing

Worcester is 3rd largest city in New England (behind Boston and Providence)

Trend 1: People need a librarian more than every

  • Across the country, library use is going up
  • Nature of questions have changed - fewer questions that can be handled in the traditional way, and knowing the collection is no longer enough

Trend 2: Reference librarians are reinventing themselves to make a wide range of new reference services available to meet users' current expectations

  • Provide learning opportunities for users, especially for job seekers (computer books, job search/resume help, workshops)
  • Provide personal assistance for job seekers or others (consult with a librarian, resume/cover letter help, set up LinkedIn or email account)
  • Provide virtual reference services - email, chat (QuestionPoint), text (My Info Quest), ebooks and databases for online 24x7 reference (and build Gale bookshelf)
  • Use web 2.0 and social networking tools to provide help in more than one way and in more than one place - blog, wiki, delicious links, Bookletters, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace (do them all, because patrons have their own preferences)

Trend 3: Reference services have a bright but challenging future. So, with less money and less staff, we must...

  • provide public and free access to ideas and information
  • stay current with new technologies and new resources and be able to teach users those information tools and skills
  • offer a wide range of reference services to meet users where they are and connect people to information that matters in their lives
  • Bottom line: meet users' current expectations (it's about their experience)


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,