As libraries innovate in order to become more viable in an age where convenience and customer service hold equal weight in the eyes of users, they are faced with opposing views of what the library experience should look like.
On one side, users place emotional value in the look and feel of the traditional library due to its place in the schemata of communities.
On the other, the push is for the nontraditional information marketplace, where circulation is managed by a variety of self-service options and librarians roam the floor looking for patrons to help rather than staff a desk where patrons are forced to come to them. Both service models have merit, and the literature shows that a marriage of the two is ideal in order to best serve a wide variety of patrons. Finding what combination of these models is best for any given library is the challenge.
The biggest question facing reference services in libraries is the same question that libraries and librarians have been asking themselves for decades – what is the best way to serve patrons? Is optimal service accomplished at a desk? A counter? Or does it happen in the stacks, or out on the open floor of the library with a tablet PC or iPad?
In an article about students from the Wharton School of Business taking a trip to a shopping mall with retail consultants, one of the consultants commented on the Apple store employees staffing the Genius Bar. The expectation is that customers needing technical help with their Apple products make an appointment via a website to come in and receive one-on-one assistance. How is this any different from the most traditional of library reference services? While retail establishments like the Apple store are becoming more like libraries, libraries are becoming more like retail stores by focusing on customer service and helping patrons where they are rather than making patrons admit to a lack of self-sufficiency by coming to the desk. At the same time, technologies such as RFID, which are already being used in technology-based self-service for circulation, may soon reach the point where roving reference staff in the stacks can check out materials to a patron using a handheld device - not at all unlike the point of sale software on the iPod Touches that Apple store employees carry.
Arguments on the approachability of the traditional reference desk were going on in the late 1980s (Morgan 1980, Larson & Robinson 1984). There was a feeling that putting reference librarians behind counters stripped them of their professional status, making them seem like retail clerks rather than teachers, but others argued that this attitude had an adverse effect on the very people they were helping.
While some libraries have opted to remove their reference desks entirely, others have kept them in some version or another for more in-depth questions.
Roving (or roaming) reference is a service model where staff leave a fixed service point to rove/roam around the library to locate patrons and offer assistance (Forsyth 2009). In reality, roving reference is just an extension of what library staff normally do when welcoming patrons to the building (Pitney & Slote 2007).
A wide variety of technology is used for roving reference, included but not limited to shelf-end OPACs, tablet PCs, the iPod Touch, Vocera badges, carts, and pocket PCs (Pierce 2006, Pitney & Slote 2007, Reed 2007, Forsyth 2009, Hines 2007, Hamby & Stubbs 2010).
Patron reaction to roving reference is overwhelmingly positive. Patrons are thankful for the more personal touch and a single librarian helping them from start to finish (Forsyth 2009, Reed 2007). In addition to addressing security and safety concerns more efficiently (Pitney & Slote 2007), roving also allows staff to discover barriers to customer service, such as faulty technology (Kramer 1996). Roving reference takes a change in philosophy and training on reading body language, interpersonal communication, time management, and even security and safety (Forsyth 2009, Reed 2007, Pitney & Slote 2007).
As the demand on library services increases even as budgets decrease, many organizations are looking to expand without adding physical spaces or by restructuring limited staff in order to make the best use of their valuable time.
One way to accomplish this is for libraries to make a (substantial) investment in one of the many technology-based self-service options available today. But self-service options can be as low-tech as a self-service hold shelf, or web-based sign-up for computers or other library services. The trade-off for staff time being used for other tasks usually means reduced “face-to-face” contact with patrons, which can alienate some users, who look forward to the interaction, at the same time it entices those more concerned about their privacy.
By taking circulation tasks such as the checking in and out of materials out of staff hands, libraries can increase the level of convenience and privacy, reduce the time it takes to reshelve items, and potentially create a twenty-four hour library with some of the more automated self-service technologies. These are all potential pros for a patron base (Holt et al 2002, Dempsey 2010). In letting go of these routine tasks, staff time can be used on other assignments, making their workflow more efficient, and the reduction of repetitive motion lends to a more ergonomic work environment (Holt et al 2002).
In the Library Journal survey conducted in April 2010 on self-service in libraries, the libraries least likely to have self-service were those serving populations of fewer than 10,000 (Dempsey 2010).
If libraries move to a service model that includes self-service, providing patrons with an option is essential. Reinders, Dabholkar, and Faramback’s study on technology-based self-service suggests that even giving patrons a choice, even if that choice is limited to two different self-service options, is better than no choice at all (2008).
Knowing the needs of a specific patron base is even more important when talking about technology-based self-service. Because demographics play a significant role in how people approach technology based self-service, taking stock of a service population as well as the needs of library staff is an important step in considering implementing self-service technology in libraries. While libraries are a place for people to learn about new technologies, technology should never be a barrier to customer service.
Service is at the heart of a library’s purpose, whether it is serving a diverse public, a student population, or a specific group of professionals. Each of these service populations has different needs and different expectations when it comes to their library experience. Libraries need to take a card from retail as they investigate and evaluate service models in order to find the best way to serve their patron base. It is likely that this will mean finding a compromise between traditional service and the cutting-edge of library related technology.
Traditional vs. Nontraditional Service Points in Libraries
Traditional vs. Nontraditional
Service Points in Libraries
by by Martha Fuerst
Information and Society
San Jose State University, Fall 2010
Photo: Newcastle Library, Newcastle Library Ground Floor (via Flickr’s ricaird)
“[…]libraries which are as the shrines where all
the relics of the ancient saints full of true
virtue and that without delusion or imposture
are preserved and reposed […]” (Bacon 1852).
Photo: New York Public Library (via Flickr’s Austin_YeahBaby)
“The change that has come over the library in
the last half century may be described, briefly
but comprehensively, by saying that it has
become predominently a social institution;
that is, that its primary concern is now with
the service that it may render to society—to
the people” (Bostwick 1920).
Photo: Seattle Public Library (via Flickr’s deVos)
What is the best way to serve patrons?
Photo: Prelinger Archives, Your Life’s Work, The Library of Congress
“Corlett explains that Apple has established ‘a
new expectation of intelligent service that used
to be associated with the trusted pharmacist.
Now, it’s your trusted Genius’” (Mero 2007).
Why not your trusted librarian?
Photo: Apple Store Boylston Street (via Flickr’s justinrussel)
“Perhaps in our desire to appear professional
and competent, we are instead rubbing in
[patron’s] ignorance” (Morgan 1980).
Photo: Nevins Memorial Historic Collection, Nevins Library First Librarians
“To enhance use of the service desk, the library
should display the service when users are ready
to perceive the service, which is the point in time
and space when the service becomes relevant to
their task” (Larson & Robinson 1984).
Photo: Palvelualue jälleen kevytrakenteinen (Staff area at Silkenborg Library, Denmark) via
“’Roving reference’ is […] a service were staff,
for some or all of the time, leave a fixed
service point to find clients within the library
who are seeking assistance rather than waiting
for them to approach the reference or
information desk” (Forsyth 2009).
Photo: Stacks with shelf-end computers and a reference librarian roving, Darien Library
(via Flickr’s ceciliaflyer)
• Patrons only decline help roughly 40% of the
time (Pitney and Slote 2007, Reed 2007).
• Approaching patrons in the stacks may reach
them at the beginning of the search process,
as opposed to doing a “known item” search at
the desk (Kramer 1996).
Photo: Mobile Service Point in action, Rapid City Public Library
“[…] libraries have consistently innovated with
services that allow their customers to take on
tasks, streamlining their library experience”
Photo: Perkins Library Circulation Desk, 1969 (via Flickr’s Duke Yearlook)
“Self-service options abound, including self-
check machines, drive-through windows,
vending machines with books and DVDs, as
well as a host of Internet-driven tools”
Photo: Self-Service Kiosks at Pembroke Library, Dublin City Public Libraries
• Faster turn-around
• 24/7 Potential
• Better workflow
• Ergonomic concerns
• More staff to direct
patrons to services
Photo: Newcastle Library, Newcastle Library Returns (via Flickr’s ricaird)
Library Journal Self-Service Survey
• Over half of the 834 libraries that responded
to the survey offered some type of self-service
• Libraries with populations around 50,000
almost all had self-service options.
• (Dempsey 2010).
Photo Credit: Holladay Library – Salt Lake County Library Services (via All Utah Libraries on Flickr)
According to psychological research, “removing
traditional full-service offerings and forcing customers
to use a [technology-based self-service] is likely to
result in more negative evaluations of the latter” due to
the concept of freedom of choice (Reinders et al 2008).
Photo Credit: Circulation at SFU (via Flickr’s sherrivokey)
• Older patrons have a greater need for one-on-
one human interaction.
• Younger patrons who have less technology
anxiety and more technological adaptability
are among those more likely to utilize
technology-based self-service options.
• Income level of patrons also effects how they
will approach self-service options as it has a
bearing on technology anxiety
(Lee et al 2010).
Photo: Self check-out at the Bellingham Public Library (via Library Development, Washington
State Library on Flickr)
“Human service is a fundamental concept
in librarianship” (Mendelsohn 1994).
Photo: Express Lane (via Skokie Public Library on Flickr)
• Bacon, F. (1852). The Two Books of Francis Bacon: of the proficience and advancement of learning, divine and
human. London: John W. Parker and Son.
• Bostwick, A.E. (1920). A librarian’s open shelf: essays on various subjects. New York: H.W. Wilson Company.
• Dempsey, B. (2010). Do-it-yourself libraries. Library Journal, 135(12), 24-28.
• Forsyth, E. (2009). Fancy walkie talkies, Star Trek communicators or roving reference? Australian Library
Journal, 58(1), 73-84.
• Hamby, R., & Stubbs, J. (2010). Ireference: a case study. Library Journal, 135(5), 125.
• Hines, S.S. (2007). Outpost reference: meeting patrons on their own ground. PNLA Quarterly, 72(1), 12-13.
• Holt, G.E., Larsen, J.I., van Vilmmeren, T. (2002). Customer self service in the hybrid library. Retrieved from
Public Libraries Internatonal website: http://www.public-
• Kramer, E.H. (1996). Why roving reference: a case study in small academic library. Reference Services Review,
• Larason, L. & Robinson, J.S. (1984). The reference desk: service point or barrier? RQ, 23(3), 332-349.
• Lee, H. , Cho, H. , Xu, W. , & Fairhurst, A. (2010). The influence of consumer traits and demographics on
intention to use retail self-service checkouts. Marketing Intelligence & Planning, 28(1), 46-58. doi:
• Mero, J. (2007). Observing geniuses in their native habitat. Fortune, 155(5), 112.
• Mendelsohn, J. (1994). Human help at opac terminals is user friendly: A preliminary study. RQ, 34(2), 173-190.
• Morgan, L. (1980). Patron preference in service points. RQ, 19(4), 373-375.
• Pitney, B. & Slote, N. (2007). Going mobile: the KCLS roving reference model. Public Libraries 46(1), 54-68.
• Reed, V. (2007). Is the reference desk no longer the best point of reference? The Reference Librarian, 48(2), 77-
• Reinders, M.J., Dabholkar, P.A., & Framback, R.T. (2008). Consequences of forcing consumers to use
technology-based-self-service. Jounral of Service Research, 11(2) 107-123. doi: 10.117/1094670508324297
All photos were used with permission or under Creative Commons Licenses.