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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Winter 2007

[Board accepted]

Integrating an Engineering Library's Public Services Desk: Multiple Perspectives

Jill Powell
Reference and Instruction Coordinator

Linda Bryan
Associate Director for Organizational Development

Marybeth Michelson-Thiery
Access Services Assistant/Reserve Supervisor

Zsuzsa Koltay
Acting Engineering Librarian

Mary Patterson
Engineering Research Services Librarian

Cornell University Library
Ithaca, New York

Copyright 2007, Jill Powell, et al. Used with permission.


Launching a new outreach initiative and renovating the library provide both an incentive and an opportunity to redesign service points and reexamine how staff can best meet the needs of their users. The Engineering Library at Cornell University recently merged separate reference and circulation desks into a single service area for a number of reasons. This process was made smoother by integrating the multiple perspectives and concerns of those affected by the change. The help of a staff development specialist, team building exercises, small cross-functional working groups, and provisions for cross training were all built into the process. Considering all points of view was an essential part of the process and its outcomes.


At the end of 2004, the College of Engineering opened a new, state-of-the-art nanotechnology research building called Duffield Hall. The spectacular atrium of the building quickly became the commons of the College, where students meet and study 24/7. The library had an opportunity to provide a service point in the atrium of the building, but the challenge was finding staff time for this high profile initiative in a subject library where staffing is fairly tight. One solution under consideration was merging the circulation and reference desks into one. Total desk hours on the merged desk would be less for reference staff than before so that they could work also at this new outreach service point.

The Engineering Library at Cornell historically has had separate service desks for circulation and reference because the functions themselves are quite different. Circulation interactions are by their nature quick, frequent, and done standing up. Reference interactions are slower, require more discussion between the librarian and patron, and are often conducted sitting down. In keeping with national trends, Cornell's reference staff has focused increasingly on outreach activities. However, in-person reference (as well as circulation) statistics were declining, and 3 FTEs invested up to 55 hours per week staffing the reference desk. (See Appendix 1). In redesigning these areas, the following main goals were identified:

This article examines the process of integrating circulation and reference desk staff and services into one desk.

While traditional reference statistics are decreasing, there is more and more demand on reference specialists to provide instruction sessions, service to remote users, office visits, in-depth consultations, chat reference (started 2002), and the outreach service in Duffield Hall (started 2004). Web page design and collection development also require increasingly more staff time. The combined service desk was conceived as a strategy to reduce the librarians' schedule at the reference desk in order to spend more time on these other activities. The "one stop shopping" was also received as more user-centered and responded more effectively to reduce traffic at multiple service points. Finally, budget and staffing reductions argued in favor of cross-training and flexible coverage. In sum, the reasons for combining the desks ultimately centered on the following converging factors: decreasing reference statistics, increased outreach efforts, and the opportunity to provide a better service fit for today's user.

Review of the Literature

The Engineering Library at Cornell University contains 400,000 volumes, 1,300 serial titles, and two million microforms. Within the total enrollment of approximately 20,000 students at Cornell, the College of Engineering has about 2,800 undergraduate students, 1,200 graduate students, and 230 faculty. A search of the literature reveals that combining circulation and reference desks is not common among larger libraries like Cornell, although some smaller libraries have done this for years (Naismith 2004), including branch libraries at research institutions. Flanagan's and Horowitz's article on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology libraries offers more insight, such as the finding that librarians can increase patron contact by inserting themselves into the research process at the combined desk and catching questions that previously went uncounted (Flanagan & Horowitz 2000). There were also advantages to bringing two distinct staff groups (circulation and reference) together. They learned from each other, better appreciated the complexity of each other's work, and gained self-confidence as they shared knowledge and skills (Flanagan & Horowitz 2000).

A surprising benefit of closing the reference desk was supported by McDermott, who writes about eliminating the reference desks in some law libraries in favor of an on-call system of reference service, with librarians working in their offices but being available on demand. Librarians noticed an increase in reference questions, even though a reference librarian had been visible all along in an office nearby. They surmised that patrons were probably "reluctant to disturb someone working in an office and therefore hesitated to enter unless specifically directed" (McDermott 2001). Bringing librarians behind the circulation desk was thought to be one way to overcome perceived barriers.

There are several challenges as well to this new integrated model: There can be turf problems if two departments are merged. This can be exacerbated when priorities are either unclear or perceived to be in conflict. Naismith observes that it may be better to designate one person to be in charge of the single desk (Naismith 2004). In her survey of libraries with combined desks, "reference librarian(s) there wish they did not have to worry about obscure circulation functions that come up too infrequently to learn them, although "Despite this, the librarian(s) did find learning other circulation tasks to be useful" (Naismith 2004). Involve all members of the staff in the planning to ensure that they will support the results (Mozenter et. al. 2003). Butcher and Kinch write in more detail about the areas best covered in cross training reference programs based upon their experience at Oregon State where the science, social science and humanities reference departments were combined (Butcher & Kinch 1990). First, they recommend that before undergoing any major changes that will affect the public, patron input should be sought. Obtaining feedback from both staff and the public is important for making improvements. For example, at MIT the public complained most about signage, but reported less trouble with the merged desk or the "hand-off," the latter of which caused staff some concern (Flanagan & Horowitz 2000). Training can be problematic. It may help to use a buddy system for training, in addition to any group workshops. This pairs a reference specialist with a circulation specialist, who is responsible for cross training in their respective areas of expertise {Flanagan & Horowitz 2000). Also consider writing up what each side needs to know, what they should expect to learn, and what they don't have to learn. Finally, if users do complain about a lack of service, it may not be staff unwillingness to help users, but "an uncertainty and unfamiliarity with how to provide assistance" (Mozenter, et. al. 2003).

The budgetary reasons for reorganizing are obvious, but should not prevail over good services. Administrators may reason that "less expensive" support staff can handle reference questions, meaning that fewer "expensive" librarians are needed. Circulation staff may feel they should earn more money, given that they are performing tasks beyond traditional circulation transactions, but these additional skills might prove useful for their future job enhancement. It is important for managers to articulate clearly the value of the services performed.

However, at MIT neither the circulation nor reference staff felt that the combined desk freed their time substantially to pursue other activities. There are several possible reasons for this: there is a lengthy learning period for the cross-training and staff are performing new duties; also, reference staff are working at a busier desk than they are used to, and have less time for project work or multitasking while staffing the desk (Flanagan & Horowitz 2000).

After carefully considering the library's needs and options, the administrative decision was made to create an integrated service desk at the Cornell Engineering Library. The library's organizational development specialist assisted the public services staff involved in the merger and transition. Discussion was encouraged and an open forum for communication and airing concerns commenced. There was also an afternoon retreat on team-building, the purpose of which was to increase group trust and mutual support and to empower team members to join forces to accomplish a common goal -- excellent service for the library patron.

Organizational Development

William Bridges, a veteran business consultant, provides a clear distinction between change and transition (Bridges 2003). Change is an event that is situational and external to us. Something old stops; something new begins. Separate reference and circulation service points vanish and an integrated service desk appears. Transition is the gradual, psychological reorientation process that happens inside each employee affected by a change while adapting to the external change. Transition management is the process of helping employees work out their own meanings about the changes they are implementing. Managing and living through the transition process takes time, patience, and honest and respectful communication.

An organizational development specialist can assist the manager during transition: for example, when to be directive and when to seek consensus during the implementation process. Transition management is essential for a successful change, yet the skills for managing the people side of change are often under-appreciated. When time is limited, stress is high, and patience is short, having a trusted, neutral third party with knowledge of the transition process can be helpful to both managers and employees. Leaders sometimes forget -- because they themselves are under stress -- that stress limits one's ability to fully integrate new information. Leaders need support to clearly, patiently and repeatedly articulate what behaviors and attitudes people will need to be successful in the new environment. It is vitally important to communicate frequently and consistently when the change impacts the employee's professional identity.

An organizational development specialist can also help the implementation team devise a process and structure for change. At Cornell, the integrated services desk team worked independently, in cross-functional pairings, and as a full group to negotiate the details of the desk operation. This experiential approach, based on fluid sharing of information, encourages staff to form their own meanings about the change by direct involvement in the planning and implementation for the project (Atkinson 2003). Involving staff in the decision-making process, creating expectations for the new roles, developing work schedules, and providing training allows them to take ownership of the changes. The ability to respond proactively rather than reactively to differences is of the utmost importance during the transition period.

The process for input and decision making is one area where misunderstandings are likely to arise. For example, it is very important for leaders to be clear on timetables when input is desired on procedural changes and when debate is over. If the timing is misunderstood, what seems like useful feedback from an employee's perspective may be perceived by leaders as an unwillingness to accept change. Time set aside to reflect upon successes and failures of particular aspects of the project is critical for learning from this experience.

Another important but frequently ignored aspect of transition management is the open recognition of the losses associated with the change. The specific losses will be unique to each employee, but losses frequently associated with this transformation change include the loss of turf, status, professional identity, work status, routine and structure. The library's organizational development specialist can help normalize the transition process for staff and provide individuals with the opportunity to discuss their losses and formulate adaptive strategies.

Thus, a participatory design model was developed to consider all points of view. All members of the reference and circulation departments were asked to serve on one of four cross-functional working groups. Each group developed an aspect of the blueprint of the change and how it would be implemented. The first working group focused on translating the broad vision and goals for the project into more refined and detailed implementation concepts. This group also identified areas of concern that needed to be addressed in order for the integrated service to succeed. (For example, there were differences in the roles, work styles and cultures of circulation services and reference functions). The second working group concerned itself with the process of communication and decision making. The main contribution of this group was a decision-making flow chart to help all concerned to have a shared vocabulary, set of expectations, and process by which various types of decisions would be made. The third group worked to define roles, relationships, workflow, and scheduling at the integrated desk. The main result was the three-tiered staffing model that was adopted and the principle that roles and space decisions should be governed by the function and the type of interaction, as opposed to traditional organizational unit. Lastly, the fourth group worked out the cross training including identifying basic competencies and training strategies, and coordinated the actual training programs.

The service model that emerged was as follows: Tier one, or the first responder, is a student employee trained to provide basic circulation service duties and to recognize and refer reference questions. The student is stationed at the stand-up counter for quick interactions, or just a step away from it at the check-in station section of the desk. Tier two is staffed by either a circulation specialist or a reference specialist. The second tier staff member sits at a workstation a few steps behind the service desk. This position serves as the shift supervisor, and backs up the student when there are two people needed to respond to questions. The second tier responder possesses a more in-depth knowledge for the more difficult interactions. As help is needed this person moves up to the service desk, either to the quick interaction section, or the sit-down consultation desk for longer interactions. Tier three staff responds on an on-call basis, when a level of specialty services person is needed.

Figure 1

View of the integrated services desk. At tier 1 there are two stand-up computers and one sit-down computer used to consult with patrons. A supervisor sits at tier 2 which is just in front of the bookshelves and visible from the front desk.

Cross Training and Scheduling

Two critical factors influencing the success of the integration were the amount of cross-functional training each side received and determining the appropriate length and frequency of desk coverage. The goal of cross training was to train all desk staff in basic reference, computing, and circulation skills so that essential services could be offered during all hours the library is open. The group needed to decide how to accomplish the training, how to evaluate the effectiveness of the training program, and most difficult of all, how to plan and implement the training. There was anxiety from some staff regarding how long it would take to learn new procedures and how well they would be expected to perform. On the other hand, there were those who welcomed the chance to learn new skills and were excited about their new, expanded roles.

A training subgroup designated three coordinators: one for circulation, one for computing; and one for reference. The coordinators would assign specific topics to other staff members so everyone was involved in writing the training materials. The training coordinators employed multiple learning strategies; for example, training "buddies" were assigned. Pairing individuals from circulation and reference was intended to make training more effective by interacting one-on-one and by distributing the workload.

Assessment of the training was one of the responsibilities of the training group. Training materials were collected by the coordinators, edited, and mounted on Blackboard, so they could be archived and accessible (Powell, et al. 2006). The materials consisted of narratives, interactive slides, and interactive quizzes. Circulation training consisted of basic circulation transactions; patron records and blocks; recalls and holds; reserves and billing records; and renewals and item records. Reference training consisted of reference basics (interview, reference collection, online help), the library online catalog (reading a citation, searching, interlibrary loan), and frequently-used databases. Several staff mentioned how hard it was to retain all the information on those procedures and techniques that weren't frequent aspects of their responsibilities. The training group thus decided to set up review sessions three times a year as a way to provide continual training during times when it was least busy.

There was the equally important issue of scheduling. Before the change, reference employees staffed a separate reference desk 55 hours/week, including evenings. Librarians covered an average of 15 of those hours. Afterwards, because of lower reference demand at night, evening reference coverage was eliminated, and all the reference staff, shifted to daytime hours. Circulation staff at the desk in the evenings provide basic reference help. The integrated service desk manager schedules the desk shifts and supervises the desk. After the circulation and reference desks were combined, reference employees staff the desk 26 hours per week.

Today, each reference librarian staffs the desk, outreach service, and chat about seven hours per week, and two part-time reference assistants staff eleven hours each all these service points as well. If considering the combined desk alone the hours would be four each for the librarians and eight each for the reference assistants. For reference librarians two-hour shifts twice a week seem ideal: it is enough to understand the basics of the circulation system, interact with the student workers, meet and help patrons, and feel more fully involved in more library functions. This still preserves time off the desk for consulting, instruction, and project work. Having reliable student coverage is very important, as is including as many staff as possible in the scheduling to address employee absences.


The culmination of the group effort is a fully-operational single point of service for library users. The new service desk has a single circular desk, with a standup area for circulation transactions (two computers with one for check-out; one for discharging, e-mail, and backup check-out), and a sit-down section with a computer for consulting, be it for a reference or circulation consultation. Staffing for the service desk is provided by student workers, reference, and circulation employees who are trained to answer a broad variety of patron requests according to a tiered response system. Cornell experienced many of the same challenges and benefits that MIT and other libraries experienced when the reference and circulation desks were merged. At Cornell, the public reaction was highly positive. Patron comments on the renovations have been overwhelming positive. For them the loss of the reference desk is not the main change; having new furniture, group study rooms, and new computers is the main advantage. Use of the library has increased by 20% (see Appendix 1).

Change and loss in the workplace are disruptive and uncomfortable, yet both conditions are inevitable aspects of progress. Recognizing the need to manage the employees' transition process and seeking support for the team members early in the change process demonstrates management's care and concern for their employees. The first few weeks following the desk integration were hard, particularly because it was at the beginning of the semester, and the merger and construction took place simultaneously. Reference staff whose professional identity was centered on their work at the reference desk had to deal with one type of loss. Circulation staff had to deal with suddenly sharing their workspace with others whose work culture and skill sets was different. There were times when staff commented "this isn't working." Management and the staff development specialist sought to allay these difficulties and praised the integration team for a "courageous move into uncharted territory," reassuring them that they were admired by others in the library for their dedication. After the construction was finished, including major improvements to the reading room and staff lounge, staff impressions noticeably improved. Now, the furniture and equipment are in place and staff is performing in their new roles. Simultaneously employees are moving through their personal internal journeys, yet the milestones of this transformation are subtle and can often only be detected in hindsight. As the personal journey necessary for this change to be a success comes to an end, employees find themselves saying, "That was a piece of cake. What's next?"


Atkinson, J. 2003. Managing Change and Embedding Innovation in Academic Libraries and Information Services. The New Review of Academic Librarianship, 9 (1), 25-41.

Bridges, W. 2003. Managing Transitions, 2nd edition. Cambridge, MA: Da Capa Press.

Butcher, K.S. and Kinch, M.P. 1990. Who Calls the Shots? The Politics of Reference Reorganization. The Journal of Academic Librarianship 16 (5): 280-284.

Flanagan, P. and Horowitz, L.R. 2000. Exploring New Service Models: Can Consolidating Public Service Points Improve Response To Customer Needs? The Journal of Academic Librarianship 26 (5): 329-338.

McDermott, M.H. 2001. Staffing The Reference Desk: Improving Service Through Cross-Training and Other Programs. Legal Reference Services Quarterly 19(1/2): 207-219.

Mozenter, F., Sanders, B.T., and Bellamy, C. 2003. Cross-Training Public Service Staff in the Electronic Age: I Have to Learn to Do What?! The Journal of Academic Librarianship 29(6): 399-404.

Naismith, R. 2004. Combining Circulation and Reference Functions at One Desk. Journal of Access Services 2 (3):15-20.

Powell, J., Wells, T., Leary, J., et. al. 2006. Blackboard courses, Engineering Research Strategies, Express Train Demo. [Online]. Available: [May 4, 2006].

Appendix 1

A Circulation Professional's Perspective

In addition to many months of detailed planning, the library's values of collegiality, respect and flexibility made a successful merger of these two functional areas possible. The support staff (both reference and circulation) was included in the design of the physical area as well as in the planning for the functional combination. Circulation staff views and suggestions were taken seriously; for example, in the placement and design of the new service desk and in the decisions about what programs and e-mail options should be at each workstation in the public services area. Circulation staff worked hard with reference colleagues on various committees to overcome the difficulties inherent in combining two different departments into one operation.

The differing nature of circulation and reference work had created two unique work cultures. In circulation, interactions with the public are often short in duration and conducted with several other patrons waiting in line, so staff feel pressure to work quickly. When carrying out circulation duties, an employee must be comfortable with saying "no. By contrast, the nature of reference work is to inquire and explore. This expectation requires that the employee take more time with each patron interaction. It can be challenging for employees acculturated by years of working in one functional area to develop the flexible mindset required to shift between a quickly-moving enforcer to inquiry-based facilitator, and back again.

With a small staff to cover many hours at the desk it is necessary to be very flexible in order to accommodate vacations, illnesses, meetings, and vacancies. Because student assistants are the first tier of response at the desk, there are also issues of flexible staffing to allow for training and student absences at various points in the semester. Therefore, staff must be willing to fill in as unscheduled first-, second-, or even third-tier -- sometimes at a moment's notice. Most details were worked out by the committee in the vision of roles. The team created a schedule, designed the functional aspects of each desk workstation, envisioned the roles of each person on the schedule, and then developed a color coded spreadsheet type of schedule that had a line for each role (first-, second-, third-tier) and an allotted time for each staffer filling a role.

The Engineering Library desk team continues to work together to solve problems on an equitable basis. Feeling respected and valued as colleagues goes a long way toward helping circulation staff feel comfortable in their new roles. One of the unexpected positive results of the merger is the rewards experienced by circulation staff who have become the "experts" in circulation procedures, which is a great ego-booster for those who have sometimes felt like the undervalued department of an undervalued profession.

Appendix 2

A Reference Professional's Perspective

The change in how reference librarians work has proceeded smoothly, because the members of the two former departments share a desire to offer excellent service and have a mutual respect for one another's skills and expertise. There have been rough spots, but the staff has worked to improve them. When multiple significant changes occur simultaneously (physical workspace, new responsibilities, computer lab issues, reference queries, circulation/billing issues, merged staff with different skills, oversight of student workers), these exacerbate stress levels considerably. Implementing changes gradually and introducing the small participatory work groups as early as possible in the planning process can create a structure for dealing with problems. Time is needed to adapt, to let go of former patterns and to build new, satisfying, and thus successful working units.

The new desk staffing configuration funnels routine questions to a student trained to know what to answer and what to refer. What is unknown is if users who have a complex question are discouraged by the referral from the initial contact. Often, when a staff member is at the consulting desk helping someone with a reference question, patrons will wait for service at that desk rather than seek immediate service from the student assistant, which suggests that users do make specific service selections.

Staff training materials aim for basic competency, and they have been useful, but the "use it or lose it" axiom is real for reference librarians. Dual reference and circulation expertise is difficult to achieve and sustain because no one uses all relevant knowledge all the time. Circulation staff must make an on-the-spot decision to call on librarians to answer complex questions when the desk is busy, and librarians must call on circulation staff when unusual circulation situations arise. Once staff members are comfortable doing this, stress is reduced. Reference staff is scheduled for fewer hours at the public desk, but continue to get questions referred to them throughout the day. In that regard, scheduling is complex and does have gaps when both reference and circulation expertise is not available. When the employee with the necessary expertise is not available, the question must be referred and resolution later.

Working at the circulation desk has exposed reference specialists more to daily use patterns, since they see what books are checked out and what problems students encounter. These changes have presented an opportunity to deal with various workplace issues, such as adapting to many changes simultaneously, learning new skills, reaching out to each other, listening to and respecting all perspectives, and enlarging job performance expectations.

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