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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2004

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[Board accepted]

"I Wouldn't Have Asked for Help if I had to go to the Library": Reference Services On Site

Jennifer Lee
Liaison Librarian
Chemistry, Environmental Design & Science, Urban Design & Planning, Mathematics & Statistics

K. Alix Hayden
Liaison Librarian
Nursing, Kinesiology

Don MacMillan
Liaison Librarian
Biological Sciences, Physics & Astronomy

MacKimmie Library
University of Calgary


Students may be reluctant to ask questions at a library reference desk because it is such a public venue. It may be possible to give them an alternative by providing reference services outside of the library within a faculty lab or office. Advantages include convenience and proximity to students, faculty, and their learning communities. The service may also foster closer and stronger relationships with departments. It is important to choose a location wisely, as well as advertise widely. This paper examines the provision of reference services outside of the traditional library environment, and describes two initiatives involving librarians for the Faculty of Nursing and the Faculty of Science at the University of Calgary.


As the title implies, today's students have grown up in an age where self-sufficiency is demanded and expected. In our experience, students are expected to take control over their learning. Often, only when their efforts prove fruitless or inadequate, and when they have exhausted their resources for finding information, will students consult librarians and library assistants at the information/reference desk. Students approaching the information desk often preface their queries with the statement, "I know this is a stupid question but... " Students are often hesitant to demonstrate their lack of knowledge and their inability to find information independently. It is akin to a public confession of their inadequacy. Fister (2002) maintains:

Surrounded by computers and books and journals chosen specifically to support their learning, students are embarrassed by those riches -- or, rather, by the fact that what they need is somewhere in all that bounty and they don't know how to find it. To make matters worse, the place is full of fellow students who all appear to know exactly what they're doing.

When approaching the information desk students see themselves as proclaiming to the world their incompetence and weakness as students. Swope and Katzer (1972) report the results from a study conducted by an academic library that found that two-thirds of students with specific needs said that they would not ask a librarian for help and listed some disturbing reasons. Some thought their questions were "too simple," whereas other students expressed reluctance to "bother" librarians or to express their dissatisfaction with previous service. Valentine's (1993) research showed that not much has changed in 20 years. Students in her study also stated that asking a librarian for assistance was tantamount to proclaiming failure. As one student in her study put it "that's like admitting you're an idiot." Further, students in Kuhlthau's (1993) longitudinal research felt that the librarian and the information desk were a last resort. "Seeking assistance from the librarian was seen as taking 'the easy way out' and not as a legitimate approach to researching a topic or as an integral part of the research process" (Kuhlthau 1993).

The librarian's post is public, where the information desk serves as a physical barrier between the librarian and the student. It seems that students often view the librarian at the information desk as too public a figure to whom they may admit ignorance, or that approaching the librarian shouts ignorance to others who may be present. This mirrors the apprehension students may experience when they raise a hand in class to ask a question: when standing at the information desk, students might fear that others will think their question idiotic and roll their eyes in response to such a 'stupid' question. Mellon (1986, 1988) presented the concept of library anxiety. She maintains that

  1. students' fears are due to a feeling that other students are competent at library use while they alone are incompetent;
  2. this lack of competence is somehow shameful and must be kept hidden; and
  3. asking questions reveals their inadequacies (Mellon 1988).

It may be possible to avoid this perceived admission of ignorance if the information desk is in a place where students normally feel comfortable and belong, rather than a library, a very public, shared space. For instance, a faculty lab or classroom, which students may think of more as "theirs," could be one place to offer assistance. This idea of bringing public services to clients, especially within faculties and departments is just one of many strategies which may reach clients unwilling or unable to visit a library's main information desk.

Literature Review

While there are many articles about different ways to bring academic library reference services to clients (roving reference, virtual reference, etc.), there are few that involve moving a librarian to a location outside the library. However, Leonard proposed this concept as early as 1994. He wrote about creating "field service librarians" from public service librarians, and placing them close to their clients. In the literature, this "moving out" usually describes occupying space in an academic department. Blewett (1995) reports such a situation, in which a bibliographer held office hours in the History and Political Science Departments. In Blewett's case, the faculty study in the History Department and an office in the Political Science Department administrative suite were used. Nims (1998) provided evening reference service in residence hall computer labs. Wagner (2004) and four other subject specialists offered office hours in seven departments (African American Studies, Anthropology, Career Services Center, Classics, Communications, Industrial Engineering, and Physics.)

Virginia Tech's libraries had a slightly different strategy (Seamans and Metz 2002; Schillie et al. 2000; Stemmer and Tombarge 1997). Where Blewett (1995), Nims (1998) and Wagner (2004) were in the department a few hours a week, Virginia Tech's "college librarian program" placed bibliographers into faculty and departmental areas almost full-time. This created what Stemmer and Tombarge called a "virtual branch." Similarly, Davis and Weber (2002) report placing librarians in information centres after the closing of two libraries. The centres were located in the schools of education and social work, while the collections were elsewhere. Duties changed from those of a branch librarian to include more reference, instruction, outreach, and collection development duties.

Reichardt and Harder's blog (2004) contains responses from many librarians across North America, describing similar efforts in their institutions. In Canada, this type of service is offered at the University of Alberta and Simon Fraser University. At the University of Calgary, pilot projects where librarians held scheduled reference hours in the faculty, commenced in the Faculties of Science and Nursing in the Fall and Winter semesters of 2003-04.

University of Calgary Library Overview

At the University of Calgary's Library, public services librarians, or "liaison librarians" have four major roles: collections, reference, liaison with faculty, and instruction. Liaison librarians carry out their reference duties at the service desk of the main or branch libraries, depending on their subject affiliations. They also book appointments with individual clients for office consultations. This allows the librarian and clients more time to explore resources in depth and to work through difficult reference questions.

As an extension to office consultations, in the Fall of 2003 and Winter of 2004, the Biological Sciences/Physics & Astronomy, Chemistry/Mathematics & Statistics, and Nursing Liaison Librarians decided to hold "office hours" away from the main library. In keeping with the cultures of their respective departments and faculties, the Biological Sciences/Physics & Astronomy and Chemistry/Mathematics & Statistics Liaison Librarians called their service "office hours," while the Nursing Liaison Librarian called her service "Librarian in Residence." The following section presents the two pilot projects in detail.

Case Study 1: Reference "Office Hours" in the Faculty of Science -- Biological Sciences, Physics & Astronomy, Chemistry, Mathematics & Statistics

History and Rationale:

The Biological Sciences/Physics & Astronomy Liaison Librarian's discussions with a first-year biology course coordinator led to "office hours" within the Faculty of Science. Originally suggested to be a few hours per week in the biology learning centre, it evolved to include the Chemistry Liaison Librarian and moved to a small classroom near the faculty offices. The rationale for the original suggestion was to bring library services to the students and faculty.

The service was started as a pilot project in November of 2003, and continued through to April of 2004. No services were provided during exam periods or during the summer months. Currently, the project is starting up again, and the Biological Sciences/Physics & Astronomy Liaison Librarian and Chemistry/Mathematics & Statistics Liaison Librarian each provide services one day a week for two hours.

The Location:

Location for office hours

The location for the office hours was a small classroom shared by the Department of Chemistry and the University of Calgary Safety Office. Either may book the room for their use and the Chemistry Department Head was extremely helpful in making this possible. While it did not have the ideal setup for a reference desk, the room had an Internet connection, tables, and chairs.

The room was located in the basement of the same building as the Chemistry and Biology faculty, as well as where many students take their courses. The building connects to the other Science lecture theatres and buildings via enclosed walkways. The only disadvantage to the location is that it is in the basement; therefore, foot traffic was not as great as it would be on the main floor where lectures take place.

The room was not equipped with computers so librarians took a laptop for each shift. The laptop was loaded with the SciFinder Scholar software and CrossFire client (Chemistry information tools).


Liaison librarians posted notices on the biology, physics, mathematics, and chemistry subject web pages, which students and faculty use as library resource pages. A message was sent to reference staff advising them of the new service; they were not to redirect students from the main reference desk but were instead asked to mention it to students as a place to go for expert consultation conveniently located in the students' faculty. Various faculty e-mail lists, including those to science faculty members and graduate students, and departmental newsletters were used to promote the in-house office hours. The service was announced to students during instruction sessions by showing them the subject web pages. Finally, a sign was made for the door of the room to advertise when the librarian was "in."

Types of questions and clientele:

The number of visits averaged about two per week, or one per two-hour shift. While this number is small compared to the statistics logged at reference desks, the service saw clients who may not normally go to the library, and encountered questions of greater depth. For example, one faculty member stopped by to ask about tables of contents services for several obscure journals. He did not expect a quick and easy answer, and indeed, the interaction led to a conversation about dissemination of scientific information in the electronic age. Additionally, the lack of line-ups allowed the reference interaction to be more like an office consultation: the librarian and client can spend more time together on an in-depth question without the pressure of other students waiting for service.

Between November 2003 and March 16, 2004, the service was visited by ten undergraduate students, seven graduate students, nine faculty, and two "other" (status unknown) patrons. All of the students and faculty members were from the Faculty of Science or had science-related reference questions. A few were students referred by their instructors.

Questions ranged from the quick: "Why is it that x journal allows me to get as far as the abstract and then does not give me the full-text?" to the more involved: "Where can I find data on the effects of wind velocity on stand thinning in forestry?"

Case Study 2: Nursing

History and Rationale:

For four years, the Nursing Liaison Librarian offered drop-in library instruction sessions within the Faculty of Nursing. These sessions were titled Armchair Researcher Series and were designed to assist faculty and graduate students in becoming "comfortable" searching electronic resources for their information needs. Each bi-weekly workshop focused on building on search skills and information literacy competencies. In the Fall of 2003, however, the sessions could no longer be held in the Faculty of Nursing because of the demand on the faculty for its computer resources. Drop-in sessions were therefore held in the main library. Although the main library is physically close to the Faculty of Nursing, and students and faculty do not need to venture outside to get to the library, attendance at sessions dropped dramatically over the duration of the term. Further, the Faculty of Nursing has been somewhat disadvantaged with respect to library services as the nursing collection is housed in the Health Sciences Library which is located approximately 2km (1.25 miles) away from the faculty. Other than attending Armchair Researcher workshops or making an appointment with the Nursing Liaison librarian, Faculty of Nursing affiliates really had no reason to go to the main library.

After considerable discussion with the Nursing Commons Committee, it was decided to offer in-depth consultation services within the Faculty. This idea had been discussed two years previously, but never came to fruition for a variety of reasons. Given the lack of attendance at Armchair Researcher workshops, it was now felt that librarian office hours within the faculty would help to reach faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students who were unable or unwilling, to make individual appointments with the Liaison Librarian for assistance.

The "Librarian in Residence" service began during the first week of February 2004 and continued until the end of term. Service was not offered during summer months, but recommenced mid-September for Fall 2004 term. The Nursing Liaison Librarian provided one hour of service once per week.

The Location:

The Faculty of Nursing developed a Nursing Commons that promotes cooperation and coordination to optimize teaching and learning resources. The Nursing Commons is the collection of educational resources within the Faculty, and includes the Nursing Skills Centre and the Learning Centre. The Nursing Skills Centre houses the Faculty's psychomotor skills labs where students are given hands-on clinical-related experience. The Learning Centre provides access to videos, reference material and practice apparatus for sign-out. Resources within the Centre include study carrels, each of which is equipped with a VCR, monitor, and hookups for headphones. There is also a limited selection of reference books, nursing journals, professional literature, and reserve materials as designated by course professors. One half of the Learning Centre houses multimedia equipment for web research or word processing. The Nursing Commons is seen as the educational resource hub of the Faculty.

Office hours location

The Centre houses 19 PCs, all of which provide access to productivity software (i.e., Word, Excel, etc.) and to the Internet. In addition, one dedicated computer is set apart from the general access PCs. This computer provides more advanced productivity software (i.e., Adobe Photoshop) as well as access to a quality scanner. A Learning Centre Assistant is available to assist faculty and students with using the specialized products available on this PC. As this PC is the least used, and is in a more private, separate area of the Learning Centre, it became the Liaison Librarian's office for consultation with faculty and students.

Undergraduate students use the Learning Centre most heavily, although faculty and graduate students often visit for assistance with productivity software, or to use the specialized resources on the dedicated computer. The Centre is conveniently located on the first floor, near a lounge area and just outside of the Undergraduate Nursing Students' Society office.


Promotion for the "Librarian in Residence" service was coordinated through the Nursing Commons Committee. The Chair of the Committee, a faculty member, contacted the faculty's Technical Web Coordinator who ensured that an announcement was circulated on all appropriate mailing lists within the Faculty, as well as an announcement placed in all Blackboard courses. The Liaison Librarian developed posters which were distributed throughout the faculty including the faculty, graduate, and undergraduate lounges. The undergraduate student representative on the Nursing Commons Committee ensured that an announcement was also placed on the undergraduate students' Blackboard discussion and chat pages. Further, the faculty's Public Relations Coordinator placed a prominent announcement in the faculty's monthly newsletter. The Learning Centre Assistant placed a permanent large "billboard" sign within the Learning Centre describing the service and hours of service. In addition, the Learning Centre Assistant often reminded students who asked her for assistance during the week, to drop by for expert, individual assistance during the "Librarian in Residence" service hours.

The comprehensive and coordinated promotion ensured that the entire faculty, including undergraduate students who are often difficult to reach, were aware of the service.

Types of questions and clientele:

Faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students used the service. It was particularly gratifying that undergraduate students felt comfortable approaching the librarian for assistance. In the past, few undergraduates have made individual consultation appointments for assistance with their research. Graduate and undergraduate students tended to request assistance in small groups; whereas faculty only "popped" by for an answer to a quick question. Although the numbers of those who used the service were low (11 individuals), the service did raise the profile of the librarian within the faculty and helped a few undergraduates overcome some of their anxiety and request assistance.

Questions ranged from the simple and straightforward such as how to cite in APA format to the more complex task of finding test instruments for measuring patient empowerment.

Reflections on the Service: Advantages and Disadvantages

The obvious advantage to meeting the students on their own ground is to provide convenient service to students who typically have limited time. Students can pop by for a quick consultation in between classes. Scheduled office hours also offer students the flexibility of coming to the service when they need it, without the hassle of trying to make an appointment with their librarian.

Blewett (1995) suggests that a disadvantage of outreach reference service is the lack of access to print resources. Although many reference resources are now available electronically in the sciences and health sciences, there are some books and series not yet available online. However, this has not posed any serious problems to date as most questions tended to focus on existing online sources. When a student or faculty member requires a print source, they can be provided with the call number and referred to the corresponding location or the library's reference desk if further assistance is required. Further, as more and more reference sources, particularly in the sciences and health sciences, become available online, the ability to provide effective, face-to-face reference service away from the physical library can only increase. Kramer (1996), Trump and Tuttle (2001), Seamans and Metz (2002), Huwe (2003) and Wagner (2004) discuss similar conclusions.

A librarian's presence in the work areas of the faculties echoes the desktop availability of library resources, while still providing the crucial human element to reference service (Archer and Cast 1999). Those students who have taken advantage of the "office hours" or "Librarian in Residence" services may not otherwise have overcome their mental or physical barriers to using the library. Therefore, the service has value. It would be interesting to know, once those barriers had been eliminated, if the students were more comfortable asking for help in the library.

Some logistical problems for the Science Liaison Librarians in the science classroom included the absence of a printer but e-mail and floppy disks were used as an alternative to save information from databases or web pages. Also, even though the Science Liaison Librarians were located in a science classroom, it was still in an out-of-the-way location. As Wagner (2004) points out "a high traffic location in the department is essential because there is no point trading one low traffic area in the library for another in the academic department."

Although the services in the two pilot projects did not see high rates of use there have been several ancillary benefits to the library and its users. By moving closer to the physical learning communities of the disciplines, librarians were more likely to be included in those learning communities. Brown and Duguid outlined the benefits of proximity to learning in their book The Social Life of Information (2000), suggesting that there is much to be gained in being part of the more casual communication of a department. Seamans and Metz (2002) found that librarians became more integrated into their departments, with some becoming members of faculty search committees, or co-investigators on grant applications. At the University of Calgary, the Nursing Liaison Librarian was often stopped in the hallways by faculty members. This led to conversations about purchasing new resources, accessing databases, and appointments outside of scheduled Librarian in Residence hours. Such informal conversations also led to an invitation to be a co-investigator on a systematic review. The librarian, therefore, can become more a part of the faculty community because s/he is more visible and approachable. Getting to know the faculty, graduate and undergraduate students may provide better information for collection improvement, advance notice of courses in the planning stages, and information on difficulties clients have with using the library's resources that they might not articulate in the library. The opportunity for improved communication also enhanced the library's marketing efforts, leading to new instruction classes being booked, and greater awareness of library resources.

It may seem that providing outreach services to students is an inefficient way of using a librarian's time and therefore may be considered a "frill." However, given that the same improved connectivity that allows librarians to instruct users outside the library also allows access to the librarians' key tools (e-mail, information resources, working files, etc.) working at an outpost may not substantially decrease productivity. The benefits to being seen in the departmental areas are real enough to make these outreach services a part of librarians' responsibilities. Some of the factors that led to low use of the service may be at least partially overcome with planning and experience.

While the projects in this article moved reference service to a more convenient space, the constraints of time reduced use of the service. The main library reference desk is staffed consistently from morning until evening; demands on librarians' time necessarily reduced the outreach hours to less than five a week. Thus, even if librarians are in the right place to answer student questions, they may not be there at the right time, and students cannot be expected to wait up to a week for the next scheduled service.

It may be that the outreach services are simply not offered when students need them, or often enough for them to become part of the students' mental landscape. It might be better to offer more service hours in the weeks before major assignments are due, rather than spread the hours equally throughout the term. There may be periods of greater or lesser activity based on class schedules. Paying attention to the peak usage periods in department computer labs, times of high library use, or peak searching of databases through use statistics, may result in a closer tailoring of library service times to student need. It would be useful to provide contact information for the librarian, such as business cards, at the location where services are regularly offered, with the explicit encouragement to call/e-mail the librarian for assistance outside of the scheduled "office hours." Logging the times of those requests might help to further refine hours of service.

As was discussed in the introduction, students are often reluctant to approach the reference desk in the library for assistance because of their fears of announcing that they do not know how to find information. Librarians providing scheduled office hours in the faculty is one attempt to help alleviate students' anxiety. However, the location in the faculty may also be too public. For example, the Nursing Liaison Librarian was provided office space in the Learning Commons in the faculty, a place populated by undergraduates. Like the reference desk, though, this area is perhaps too public. The use of the Nursing Liaison Librarian's service was not high by undergraduates, although the students saw her sitting at the computer with a sign indicating, "help is here" for their research. Librarians considering office hours, therefore, need to be aware that a public place is preferable; however, they need to choose a location that is not too public but is still within the sight lines of the students and faculty.


Location, location, location! It is important to choose a location from which one can provide adequate services, attract sufficient walk-ins, and be comfortable for those seeking help. It was relatively easy to implement this service in the two faculties, but finding a suitable, accessible location proved more difficult. The limiting factor in both cases was the need for an Internet connection, which meant that a permanent location was necessary. In institutions with reliable wireless access (e.g., SFU Library's {"Ask us here!"} project), the location is a non-issue.

The location within the faculty needs to be one that has enough foot traffic, and is convenient to visit. Being near other activity means that those going by are constantly reminded of the service, and convenience encourages repeat visits or drop-ins. Yet, it can be harmful if the location is "too good." For instance, Nims (1998) discovered that being in a dorm computer room, as close to the client as one can get, was too close, especially when it was during peak times of computer use. Students simply felt that the librarian should not be there. Lastly, those who are anxious when visiting the main reference desk may also not use a similar service outside of the library when it is just as public. Therefore, even when located in a high-traffic area, a private corner or office would be helpful. As of October of 2004, the Science Liaison Librarians have moved to two different biological sciences and chemistry computer labs on the main floor of the faculty buildings. It will be interesting to see the resulting changes.

Promotion and faculty buy-in are crucial, as they help spread news about the service to their students. Blewett (1995) sees faculty as a stable population base who will spread the word about the service. This was especially helpful in the case of the Science Liaison Librarians, where the location is not in a high-traffic area. Promotion during an instruction session is also useful, as it speaks directly to the potential users of the service. Additionally, if the session is tied to a library assignment, this can create some continuity to the student-librarian relationship.

Ideally, this could also be a year-round service. Since research for graduate students and faculty often increases in the summer, it would be useful to provide service during that time. It would be interesting to see the change in demographics, if any, and in the types of questions that are posed. The change of pace during the summer months might also lead to better networking with faculty and graduate students, resulting in a higher profile for the library and the "on-site" services during the following semesters.

"I wouldn't have asked for help if I had to go to the Library" is what one of the students said after using the library "office hours." This seems to sum up the helpfulness and convenience of the service, especially considering the student still needed to go to the library afterwards to retrieve material. While the "office hours" and "Librarian in Residence" are still in their experimental phases, the advantages for the students, as well as the potential for relationship building with the faculty are enough encouragement to continue the project for another academic year. Given time, word-of-mouth, and increasing rapport with faculty members, this service has the potential to be quite popular and well-used.


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