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User-centered Reference Services in the Academic Library
Libraries have evolved from buildings that collect books and documents for posterity to
dynamic information centers. As more information becomes available electronically, users opt
to seek information from home instead of going to the library. Librarians are not obsolete,
however, because they can aid users in evaluating information for quality, accuracy, and
currency. Navigating the sheer volume of available information can be difficult, and librarians
can make the journey easier. Service models in libraries have changed in order to stay
competitive with other information providers. The current service model emphasizes user needs
much like that of a bookstore. Excellent customer service is the best way a reference department
can maintain relevance in the changing information world, for it sets librarians apart from
Customer service became a concern of libraries as librarianship professionalized.
In 1876, Samuel Swett Green wrote “Personal relations between Librarians and Readers”, where
he stated that readers need assistance in the library, and personal assistance makes people more
likely to support the library. (Stalker, 1999) This statement is just as true today as in 1876. The
reference department is where users are most likely to find assistance navigating the “maze of
the academic library”. Reference work is meant to empower users by teaching them how to find
information on their own and to use library resources. (Stalker, 1999) It is not enough to show
users where to find information, but rather librarians should impart the tools necessary for
students to do their own research. These users will use library resources more frequently
because they are more confident in their skills.
Libraries no longer have a monopoly on information as they did in the past. “We’ve
arrived at a day, however, when patron demand more than librarian expertise is driving decision
making”. (Saunders, 2008). Librarians have to differentiate themselves from commercial search
engines by providing superior customer service and adding a personal touch to the information
University of Florida’s first guiding principle of customer service is “We center
everything we do on the needs of our user community who are at the heart of every decision we
make”. (ARL, 1998) The service policy goes on to list ways to meet high standards of reference
desk service. These include exercising initative, offering active rather than passive assistance,
ensuring that the reference desk is always attended, making extra effort for users with special
needs, and following up on questions when possible. This approach is modeled after customer
service policies at retailers. It is more than just “smile training”. Though no money is being
exchanged, it is still important that library users feel they are getting quality service when
Libraries are primarily seen as book providers by college students. At the same time,
they are more likely to use libraries rather than commercial information providers if they receive
good service. (Becker, 2009). Students seem to be more interested in workspaces than
collections, and are looking for libraries that are more like cafes or bookstores. Student
suggestions for improving the library according to recent user surveys included increasing
service hours, hiring friendlier staff, improving lighting and seating conditions, and allowing
food and drink in the library. (Becker, 2009). These suggestions were similar to those made
about consumer spaces in customer service surveys. Many college libraries now resemble
bookstores or internet cafes with large open spaces filled with computers. Emphasis is placed on
collaborative workspaces rather than shelves filled with books.
Staff attitudes towards service are the most important element to a user-centered
reference department. It is important for librarians to remember to “treat each person as an
individual, to give everyone the respect they deserve, and to serve each member of each group in
the best possible manner.” (Becker, 2009) It is easy for anyone at a service point when asked the
same question repeatedly to give a quick, rehearsed answer. It is important for staff to attempt to
approach every transaction as something new and to treat each user’s need as equally important.
Personal service will differentiate reference staff from electronic service providers and keep
consumers loyal to the library.
Libraries are finding new ways to deliver services to patrons. One of these ways is known
as “embedded librarianship”. Librarians go to where their patrons are becoming more active on
campus, in faculty meetings, doing information literacy workshops in classrooms, and student
orientation events. Establishing a strong presence on the internet is also important to the
“embedded” librarian. (Shumaker, 2009) Most academic libraries have a Facebook or Myspace
page that markets library services and keeps students aware of campus events. This is one way
those librarians are going where users are. Regardless of the delivery method used, reference
services is one of the most important criteria used to measure library effectiveness. (Bugg &
Odum, 2009) Use of traditional library resources generally rises as users become aware of these
“value-added” services. Increased internet traffic leads to increased library usage.
Information literacy workshops are another way that reference librarians are providing
customer service to student patrons. User surveys show that students highly value this service.
After attending a class on library resources, students are more likely to approach the librarian
who taught the class. Students feel a more personal connection to the library after attending one
of these workshops. (Becker 2009). These workshops also allow close relationships between
librarians and faculty to develop. Faculty will also work with librarians to develop subject or
class specific research guides that aid students in seeking information. Faculty collaboration with
librarians is important in completing the educational missions of the institution.
Even as more documents become available electronically, there will always be patrons
who desire personal service when seeking information. Librarians who view each transaction as
an opportunity to show users their best will be successful. Libraries are no longer the only place
patrons can find information, and librarians are no longer merely custodians of books. The role
of librarian has evolved to that of a guide who helps patrons determine the quality of
information. Providing excellent customer service will ensure that librarians remain important in
the cycle of information for years to come.
Association of Research Libraries. (1998). Guidelines for performance standards at a reference
desk. SPEC Kit 231: Customer Service Programs in ARL Libraries. Association of
Research Libraries Office of Leadership and Management Services.
Becker, C. H. (2009). Student values and research: Are millenials really changing the future of
reference and research. Journal of Library Administration, 49(4), 341-364.
Bugg, K. L. & Odum, R. Y.(2009). Extreme makeover reference edition: restructuring reference
services at the Robert W. Woodruff Library, Atlanta University Center. The Reference
Librarian. 50(2), 193-204.
Saunders, E. S. (2008). Meeting academic needs for information: a customer service approach.
Portal: Libraries and the Academy. 8(4), 357-371
Shumaker, D. (2009). Let’s circulate librarians. Library Journal. 134, p. 8.
Stalker, J. C. (1999) Reference: putting users first. People Come First. Edited by D. S.
Montanelli and P. F. Stenstrom. Association of College and Research Libraries, 79-92.