Discussion Group: Boundaries in Reference Service

Reference Service Discussion PanelMonday, 9:00 – 10:00

The landscape of reference service has been changing. Library users with nontraditional needs and varying competencies are appearing in libraries faced with staffing and facility challenges. Discover how different types of libraries are adapting and setting new boundaries from Matthew Jaquith, Springfield (MA) City Library and Chris Bigelow and Sheri Sochrin from Babson Library at Springfield (MA) College.

Matthew Jaquith
Important terms:

  • Information literacy: where information and technology intersect
  • Life-long learning: helping people keep their skills up with the changing demands of our culture (especially informal training)
  • Teaching and training: one-on-one teaching, but more group instruction
  • Reference room as computer lab: where do we draw the line in helping people with tech support? Everyone expects it, and as ready ref decreases, this is an opportunity for us to meet a new need
  • Roving/roaming reference and field librarians: meet the need at the point of need, especially by going out into the community
  • Disintermediation: people are doing more for themselves, and we should provide tools that encourage this
  • Library 2.0: self-renewal of our institution is built into the services we offer, incorporating input/feedback from our community

Chris Bigelow
Ref librarians are finding we are spending less time at the desk, people are coming to the library less, our desk stats are going down. But use of electronic services are increasing.

Students usually come to the library for group work, but not so much to come to the desk (unless specifically assigned). They prefer Google and self-searches. Faculty continue to assign the same work they’ve assigned for years, and continue to only look at the same few journals they’ve always read. We need to encourage both groups to use a wider spectrum of library services.

Three problems:

  • Outreach: get the word out. Get out of the building when possible – visit patrons where patrons are (especially to areas that are distant from library) – focus on “work” areas, not “social” areas
  • Ease of access (to librarians and services): Since they’re not coming in, we need to make it easy for them to contact us: email form, call, IM/chat (Pigeon and Libraryh3lp – doesn’t require patrons to have their own account), Text a Librarian (replies go right to students’ phones). Links to these services are all over the website, not just in one place (which might be hard to find)
  • Education: Students don’t know why using the library is important (and better than Google) – traditional bibliographic instruction, but embedded into every department’s curriculum via subject expert library liaisons

Sheri Sochrin
Library Liaisons: Slightly different when working with graduate students or adult learners, since they have jobs and families, generally are off-campus, often take weekend classes, many are “digital immigrants.”

Every patron group needs to be considered when evaluating print and online services – full-text online resources are convenient for most, but vital for this group. They are also heavy users of online reference services (chat and email). Make use of other organizational resources, such as video conferencing (not just the library’s, but available to the library) – it puts a human face on the library, so it’s not just a faceless institution.

Use communication channels – use email to send updates to handouts and other resources (make sure handouts are dated so you know when a student is using out-of-date material). Also using Elluminate conference software (as pilot) – web-based technology that supports traditional teach methods (feedback, breaking into small groups, push technology, etc). And if you can use it for classes, you can use it for one-on-one instruction (better they can see your screen instead of trying to explain a complex process to them over the phone). We are also staying open later (with reference assistants).

Questions and Answers
Do you have tutorial software?
-Chris: We have some: Searchpath (which is just linked static html) and some flash-based (created with Captivate), but they’re not getting much traffic, so we’re putting less focus on them. The thing that gets used the most is our small faq page.
-Matthew: SCL uses QuestionPoint co-browsing, and it turns out that’s not what patrons want.

How does text service work since you’re not available 24 hours a day?
Online form tells them we’re not online when we’re away, and refers them to other services.

Not sure, but if it were really expensive, we wouldn’t have it.

What about text-a-librarian?
They set up an account for us and handle the technical end, and all we do is advertise it and answer the questions.

How do you schedule your staff? We have small staff and one is always roaming, so it’s hard to do chat.
Chris: Chat staff is off-desk, but only available to patrons when staff is available to answer – questions go to everyone, and whoever can will “claim” it.
Matthew: We treat our chat as another desk, with scheduled hours. Email is done in-between questions.

How do you convince faculty to update assignments so library can support them?
Delicately: “your students are having trouble with this assignment…” – we also offer curriculum support, find out beforehand what they plan to do.

With so many communication methods, how do you track stats, and is it accurate?
We do once-a-semester reference count. The current chat system gives stat reports (vendor does it all).

Are other public libraries doing roving-only?
Hartford does this, Darien Library, use phone headsets/cordless phones, tablet PCs. Sometimes easier in smaller branches than main library.

How to encourage staff who resist boundary changes?
Matthew: Change is a part of our world, and rate is increasing, so this is often approached from an overall organizational point of view.

Yonkers(?) Library is letting people book reference appointments (especially for social service type questions)
But where do we draw the line? I do not handle patrons credit cards or make purchase decisions for them – can help with finding flights, but not buying flights. The line is drawn at financial outlay (taxes, purchasing, etc)
-Matthew: be sure to explain this to patron – you’re not refusing them service, it’s library policy to protect them.

Crossing the Border: Changing Times for Librarians and Genealogists

Cynthia O'NeilSunday, 3:30 – 4:30

Every library has the basic tools needed by patrons who are searching for their roots, but librarians may not realize the extent of their online and print resources. Cynthia O’Neil, Certified Genealogist, Board for Certification of Genealogists and genealogy expert at the Manchester (NH) City Library, leads you through the process of assisting genealogists, as new technology and tight budgets encourage genealogists and librarians to work together.

There has been a divide between librarians and genealogists.

Genealogists think: everyone who works in a library is a “librarian” and needs to answer questions
Librarians think: everyone asking genealogy questions will be happy with the resources we can provide

Genealogists span from simply the curious to amateurs to professions who have their own research styles, favorite tools, and want to do their own work. A new group of genealogists are family members doing this work to find family medical histories and family DNA.

Amateur give the professionals a bad name – examples of amateur questions:

  • Where is the book on my family?
  • Can you do my family tree?

Librarians help find information, not do their work.

The best genealogists want original records or primary sources, which often are not in libraries. They are in City Clerks office or Archives, but vary by state and county, which makes it difficult for visiting genealogists to understand. Secondary source are usually not what genealogists want.

Problems between librarians and genealogists:

  • The reference interview can be difficult for genealogists, because it is very personal information and they don’t want to hear that information may not be available
  • Library resources are usually secondary sources, copies, or gifts (which leads to an uneven or “worn” collection)
  • Families move away, so libraries might not have information
  • Genealogists often think that everything about a townsperson is available somewhere in that town
  • Genealogy is usually not the main focus (or skill set) of a public library

Resources libraries already have that are of use to genealogists:

  • City directories
  • microfilm
  • maps (USGS, town, etc)
  • published local histories (even of surrounding towns)
  • how-to books on genealogy
  • town annual reports and vital records
  • cemetery records
  • the World Almanac (contains a timeline of history and a perpetual calendar to find past days/dates)
  • know who to contact to find church records

Session Handout

The handout was a bibliography of suggested core collection for libraries in New England:




  • Check for your state or town’s historical society’s website
  • [many more listed, will add asap]

How to help Genealogists

  • Encourage them to call before coming so you can be ready
  • Help them find information outside of the library
  • Ask them to tell us what they can’t find, so we know what resources to look for
  • Give out-of-towners local history information in addition to genealogical information, to help give them context (since New England history goes further back than other areas of the country

Question & Answer period

Q:What kind of information do you get out of land grants?
Where people lived, especially during certain time frames, see how land was passed through family members, learn how land was used.

Q: Do you have patrons come in and say donated information is wrong? Is it our responsibility to correct it?
Leave it the way it is, but include a note (with patron contact info) to notify subsequent users. The printed information came from somewhere, but no record is perfect.

Q: Boston University is starting an extension program for genealogy – should history-reluctant staff be sent for training, or just have one person on staff who is the expert?
Many staff are afraid of genealogy questions, and no amount of training will change that. Some find they unexpectedly enjoy it, so encourage them to try. If they are covering the expert’s lunch, they can at least pass out their business card.