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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Fall 2008


An Old Fogey Looks at the Reference (R)Evolution

Linda Shackle
Coordinator for Science & Engineering Services
Noble Science & Engineering Library
Arizona State University
Tempe, Arizona

Copyright 2008, Linda Shackle. Used with permission.

I've noticed a number of publications lately touting "new" models of reference service: reference is evolving, it's transforming, it's transitioning, it's in a state of revolution! The "get out of the library" message may be causing excitement -- both for and against, but it certainly is not signaling the end of reference services.

I've been a librarian for over 34 years, mostly as a science and engineering subject specialist, although my titles have usually been a variation on "Science Reference Librarian." When I entered the profession, approval plans had pretty much converted most bibliographers into subject specialists. Approval plans never stopped librarians from doing collection development; it just shifted their focus away from the readily available commercial publications to the more unique items special to their subjects. More importantly, the librarians now had time for other activities such as instruction and reference that would benefit from their subject expertise.

I see the current state of reference services to be undergoing the same process -- a shift in focus rather than the end of a service. As with some other large science and engineering branch libraries (Bracke et al. 2008) we've converted to a single service point staffed by library assistants, who perform circulation functions, answer information and basic reference questions, and refer in-depth reference questions to the subject librarians. It's been quite successful, but then, why shouldn't it be? This model has been in use by small academic and special libraries since well before the age of automation.

Despite what the naysayers predicted, my colleagues and I are still doing reference, in some cases even more than before; we're just not doing it at a reference desk. Even better, the reference questions we do get are the in-depth type that take either subject knowledge and/or extensive experience with database retrieval. Instead of losing contact with the students, the librarians are finding the opposite: they have more contact due to greater participation in classes, research activities, and academic events. Just this morning one of my colleagues, who originally had the most doubts about adopting this model, talked about how many more students in her departments now know who she is.

Bracke et al. alluded to the subject librarians' needing to do "new" work rather than simply expanding their old duties. I prefer to consider it as embracing work that's always been there but that we never had the resources to address before. Some of our librarians have chosen to spend their gift of time by becoming the research librarian for courses that have writing assignments and actually attending all or most of the classes. On the request of a science department, another librarian has developed a fully-integrated information literacy program for their undergraduate courses. The same librarian was asked to contribute a chapter on information retrieval in the latest edition of a standard text in the field. This past summer, the engineering librarians developed a library module with presentation and exercises for use by faculty in introductory engineering courses. We now have a librarian on the Engineering College's accreditation committee and one on the planning committee for the annual graduate/undergraduate research symposium.

You've probably noticed that most of these activities are in instruction and liaison areas. So where does reference come in? All of them have contributed to greater exposure for the subject librarians and that in turn has increased the amount of requests for reference assistance and research consultations from users who now know there is someone "there" to help them. "There" of course being phone, e-mail, chat, in their departments, in their classes, or even, dare I mention it, in the library.

Meanwhile, our top-level library assistants are doing a great job at the Information Desk, formerly the circulation/reserve desk, handling circulation, reserve, printer, photocopier, and basic reference questions. And that old reference desk? Since there were so many electrical outlets in that area, after the reference books and computers were removed we left the desks and put up a sign that said "laptop zone". That once lonely spot is now consistently packed with students. Amen.

Bracke, M.S. et al. 2008. Evolution of Reference: A New Service Model for Science and Engineering Libraries. Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship. [Online] Available: [Accessed October 3, 2008].

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