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TL v58n2 Consolidation of Reference Services: Coping With and Training for Change
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Tennessee Libraries 

Volume 58 Number 1



Consolidation of Reference Services:

Coping With and Training for Change



Clark Nall
Access Services Librarian

Perveen Rustomfram
Reference Librarian

Mary Freilich
Interim Head, Government Publications Department

McWherter Library
University of Memphis

Program Abstract: In the Fall of 2006 the University of Memphis Libraries consolidated three reference services desks into one. The consolidation mandated the cross training of three separate staffs, Government Publications, Periodicals, and Reference, in order to provide quality service. This session covers the approaches taken--a Wiki, training manual, and classroom sessions.


In McWherter Library, the main location of the University of Memphis Libraries, the Reference, Government Publications, and Periodicals service desks were combined into a single service point called the Research and Information Services (RIS) (or reference desk) in August of 2006.  To respond to the training needs of the libraries’ faculty and staff (hereafter called ‘staff’) who work at the newly combined service desk, a three person training committee was appointed in March of 2007.  The committee prepared a training manual and wiki and has offered a regular program of training sessions on reference work.

Concurrent with the consolidation of reference services, the Learning Commons model was implemented in McWherter Library.  The number of public computers in the library was increased to 128 including 46 in the reference room where the combined desk is located.  The reference room hours were increased to offer 24 hour access to computers.  In addition to the consolidated reference desk, a technical support desk staffed by student employees of the campus IT department was added to the reference room so that purely technical questions can be referred by the reference desk staff to the student workers.  The addition of the technical support desk to the reference room led initially to some work culture issues that have been overcome.  Used to maintaining quiet in the campus computer labs, the IT student workers had to adjust to the idea that the reference room is a collaborative work and teaching area in which talking about research is necessary and encouraged.  The hours of the consolidated desk were increased and the number of questions answered at the desk has increased.  The 27,000 questions answered in 2006/2007 school year represented an increase of 7,000 questions over the previous academic year.

The consolidation of desk services caused some work-flow issues.  To ensure that the expertise gained from experience on the separate desks is still available to the patrons, one person from each of the affected departments is scheduled at the desk for most of the service hours.  This has been a burden on the Government Publications department as it is the smallest department involved and currently includes only five employees.  The centralized location of the consolidated desk is physically remote from some collections.  This has increased the amount of time away from the desk escorting patrons to materials.  Some collections have been split.  Part of the Government Publications reference collection was moved to the reference room.  To reduce the amount of time spent away from the desk escorting patrons to locate materials and to have a service presence in other parts of the library, student workers were hired to staff three new service desks located on the other three floors of the library.

The charge of the training committee is to develop training materials and a training program to equip everyone staffing the consolidated desk with the necessary knowledge and skills to offer effective reference service.  Within four months of appointment, the committee had prepared and distributed training materials and started a program of training sessions.  Besides the short time frame, the committee had to consider the three different service cultures of the desks that were consolidated.  Before consolidation, the Periodicals staff was used to answering primarily holdings and location questions about the print periodicals collection.  The Reference Department had a philosophy of teaching the patrons how to do research rather than simply answering questions.  The Government Publications Department, because of the unique nature of their collection, their status as a Regional Depository, and the high percentage of community members among its patrons, had a tradition of hand-holding and finding specific answers for the patrons.  Part of the training committee’s mission has been to help develop a cohesive service philosophy and practice for those who work at the consolidated desk.  The aim of the training program has been to produce a well-trained and cohesive group that can offer a consistently high standard of reference service.

The first task of the training committee was to develop a training manual as a guide for everyone who would be working at the consolidated desk.  The manual foci were Knowledge Basics, Desk Etiquette, and Reference Philosophy.  The Knowledge Basics section covers technical issues such as emailing PDF files, library policies including those for Interlibrary Loan, web skills, essential librarianship information such as SuDoc and LC classification, and database search skills.  The Desk Etiquette section was concerned with interactions with co-workers and patrons.  Basic workplace issues such as timeliness, noise at the desk, telephone etiquette, and food and drink at the desk were covered along with interaction with patrons and the importance or seeking help from colleagues when confronted with difficult or unfamiliar questions.  The Reference Philosophy section covers the ALA Code of Ethics, First Amendment issues, and the Reference Interview.

To complement the training manual, a training wiki was also created.  The wiki format offers several advantages as a means of communication for training.  The training wiki has an ad hoc nature that can be continually and incrementally updated and added to as required.  It is hoped that the informal and subjective nature of the wiki will make it a more comfortable, approachable, and collaborative source of information through which all staff can share their experience and expertise.  The informal nature of the wiki can accommodate a variety of writing styles from formal to conversational.  For our training committee, the purpose of the wiki is to act as a complement for the training manual and sessions.  The content of the wiki includes typical reference questions (fig. 1), institutional memory (fig. 2) and specific subject content (fig 3).


Figure 1. Typical Reference Questions


Figure 2. Institutional Memory


Figure 3. Specific Subject Content

In addition to the texts of the manual and the wiki, the committee implemented an on-going program of training sessions aimed at improving the reference knowledge and skills of everyone working at the consolidated desk.  The training sessions began in the summer of 2007 after the desk consolidation.  The audience for the training session includes experienced librarians and newly hired staff members with no reference experience at the time of consolidation.  During the summer when desk services were consolidated, sessions were offered every week.  During the school year, sessions are offered twice a month.  Each session is given twice to allow for greater attendance.  The sessions have been led by members of the training committee, other library faculty, and library assistants.  A wide range of topics has been offered including desk etiquette, the reference interview, government sources, database searching, business sources, and literary criticism.  A recent survey of those staffing the consolidated desk reflected on-going training needs.  Respondents requested repeat training in some areas including government publications, business sources, and literary criticism. 

In hindsight, there are many things we could have done differently to make desk consolidation more effective.  The first thing we would have done differently is the timing.  The committee was appointed after the consolidation and once appointed, we had only a few months to prepare and begin training.  More lead time could have been used to survey staff to determine training needs and devote more time to preparing training materials.  Ideally, the training committee would have required extensive training before scheduling staff at the consolidated desk and would have asked all staff to rotate through the three existing desks to better understand their services.  We would also have advocated for a more effective organizational structure.  The consolidated desk was originally governed by a three person committee representing the three affected departments.  One of the original committee members has since retired.  A second has wide-ranging responsibilities that preclude active involvement.  Desk staff report to three different supervisors and are held to three different standards of service.  Leadership by committee has made consistent implementation of desk policies and procedures difficult.  We hope that training session on desk behavior will narrow the gap in service philosophies.  Had we had the benefit of our current experience, we would have sought out a reference textbook for the staff rather than writing an entire manual from scratch.  A general reference text coupled with locally developed materials on our practices and procedures would have been more time efficient.  Finally, we would have required a demonstration of basic reference skills by staff members before scheduling them on the desk.

Following the consolidation of the Reference, Government Publications, and Periodicals desk services at McWherter Library, the training committee’s goal has been to equip everyone staffing the desk with the necessary skills and knowledge to offer reference service to our patrons.  We have used a training manual, a training wiki, and an on-going program of training sessions to achieve this.  Our experience has taught us that our reference services would have been better served had an intense program of training begun well before the time of consolidation.  However, according to our recent survey, the training has been beneficial to its audience.  We plan to continue the training sessions indefinitely in order to continue to improve our service.

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