Category Archives: Public Services

Bite-sized Change

Editor’s Note: We welcome Veronica Arellano-Douglas to the ACRLog team. Veronica is a Research and Instruction Librarian at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Her research interests include critical librarianship, information literacy, and pedagogy; graphic design and visual communication in libraries; and diversity, equity, and inclusion in LIS.

For years I believed that for change to have any kind of impact, it had to be drastic. I place the blame for this misapprehension squarely on the shoulders of cable TV producers and women’s magazine editors, who seem to have an uncanny ability to tap into the power transformation holds over the human psyche.  

Watch an exhausted working mom’s stunning makeover! See this outdated kitchen become a chef’s dream space! Read about the man who went from couch to triathlon in just 3 months!

I suppose I share some of the blame as well. No one forced me to watch hours of HGTV and What Not to Wear, and yet the promise of drastic change lured me in every time I turned on the TV. There’s inspiration that comes from seeing extreme transformation. It can teach us to dream big and marvel at the amazing capacity humans have for change. It can also be paralyzing. It can overwhelm us with the enormity of the process of change and leave us feeling like we’ll never live up to our potential.

How does change begin?

My library has been in a period of transition over the past few years. Expected retirements, unexpected departures, well-deserved parental leaves, and new additions have all had a significant impact on our library services and the day-to-day work of our library faculty and staff.  Understandably, we’ve been in reaction-mode for a while now–trying to maintain our core mission while deflecting potential negative impacts on services and workflow.

This last academic year was different. It was time for a change of our own making.

Although we continued to tread water in our daily practice, my colleagues and I decided to take a more proactive approach to our relationship with our students. Knowing that our Anthropology faculty frequently collaborated with campus units on ethnographic research projects for its majors, in fall 2015 we offered ourselves and the Library as “clients” to students in an Applied Anthropology course. Our intent was the learn more about the students at our quirky, small, public, liberal arts, honors college. We wanted to know more about how they integrate the library’s resources into their academic work, interact with librarians, and use the library space throughout their day. Working under the guidance and mentorship of their professor and experienced researcher Dr. Bill Roberts, the Applied Anthropology students created research questions, determined which ethnographic research methods would best answer those questions, and carried out the methods with us–the librarians–as additional researchers.

It was participatory action research at its best. Librarians and students were both researchers and research “subjects,” continuously making meaning from discussions with one another and modifying research questions as new information was gathered. Everyone had a stake in this project. The anthropology faculty member and students were so enthused that they continued their work in a new class in the spring and will likely take it up again this coming fall. You can read more about the project and our specific methods on our Library Ethnography Project Libguide.

What do we do with all this information?

This ethnographic project was meaningful as an act of collaboration and as an opportunity for faculty, students, and librarians to learn from one another. But it was also important to all of us that this process be practical, that it produce data that would lead to positive change for the library and students. Or, in the words of one of my amazing colleagues, “So… we’re actually doing to do something with this information, right?”

Right. But what exactly should we do?

Qualitative data (the kind gathered from surveys, focus groups, and free-listing) is big, unwieldy, and complex. It can feel intimidating and overwhelming. It’s easy to give into the mistaken belief that just because the project itself was big–lots of time, lots of people involved–the changes it inspires need to be equally big. There’s pressure to create the kind of dramatic transformation that would lead to a research article, a feature in Library Journal, or a mention in AL Direct.

But change doesn’t have to be big to be impactful.  

One of our project collaborators, a cataloger by training, grouped and categorized much of the qualitative information gleaned from our open-ended survey questions and focus groups into “actionable issues.” (Annie Armstrong, Catherine Lantz, Annie Pho, and Glenda Insua gave a fantastic presentation at LOEX 2016 on action coding, or coding qualitative information for change if you’re interested in learning more about this practice.) What was most surprising to us was the mundanity of the issues and concerns our students brought up again and again:

  • The temperature in the building is erratic and uncomfortable.
  • Our discovery layer is confusing and unhelpful at times.
  • There are never enough outlets available.
  • It is not clear where certain things are located in the library or what services are available.
  • Reservations for group study rooms are confusing.
  • The library is too loud.

There were of course, other issues, but you can see that the over all theme centers around quite small, ground-level, day-to-day issues. They don’t require a giant library renovation or a complete overhaul of services, but they do inspire change. Through this project, we’ve learned that there are small things we can change about our library and our work that can positively impact our students’ experiences in the library. Things like

  • Designating a portion of our 2nd floor as quiet study space.
  • Posting daily reservation schedules on our group study room doors.
  • Creating aesthetically-pleasing and cohesive signage for our library.
  • Changing our implementation of the default discovery layer settings.
  • Creating monthly PSAs and advertising campaigns highlighting specific library services, parts of the collection, or aspects of the building.
  • Making more extension cords available around the building for student use.

These are our immediate responses to things that are directly under our control. They aren’t earth-shattering, but we think they’ll make a difference to our students and be noticeable to them in the fall. We also have long-term actions we’d ultimately like to see happen, but we aren’t letting the need for radical transformation prevent us from making the small, necessary changes that are easy for a small library like ours.

There’s still another month left before our students return and classes begin, and we’re using the time to carry out some of the actions listed above. What kind of changes (big or small) have you implemented or discussed in your library this summer?

Put a Process On It!

Editor’s Note: We welcome Angela Rathmel to the ACRLog team. Angela is the head of Acquisitions & Resource Sharing at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. Her research focuses on libraries’ organizational response to changes in scholarly publishing, acquisition, and access, particularly with respect to organizational communication, information seeking, and knowledge management.

Working in acquisitions and resource sharing, I sometimes struggle to navigate my unique and shared place in the various communities of this profession (ACRL, ALCTS, LLAMA, etc.). I’m often characterized as a “technical services” librarian, but this does not always adequately describe the work I do. In the past 15 years that I have worked in this part of the library, I have seen dramatic changes as a result of the material transition of print to electronic resources. Beyond just the physical format, these changes have meant that technical services staff now work more directly with library users and no longer just process behind the scenes. Our work also involves direct and frequent interaction across more areas of the library than ever before.

I genuinely enjoy working with people. Discovering new ways to communicate across the library, especially through radical change, fascinates me. In spite of these interpersonal interests, in many ways I fall right into the technical services stereotype. I’m a cautious communicator, and my go-to mode of thinking is to solve every issue with a systematized process. Give me a problem and I’ll “put a process on it”!

A particularly cogent example of this tendency occurred recently with some of my colleagues in “public services” (another phrase that no longer adequately describes their work). We were discussing our campus-wide initiatives in diversity, equity, and social justice and how the libraries could support these initiatives throughout all of our services, not just at the service desk.  I saw this as a perfect opportunity to once again lower the barriers between technical and public services. But I worried because I found myself expressing the challenge many of us in technical services face even initiating discussions about our own day-to-day work conflicts. I was fearful about my ability, especially as a leader, to initiate a productive conversation with my staff about conflicts, like microagressions, of which individuals may not even be aware. So, I did what I often do when faced with uncertainty — I put a process on it! I suggested that we solicit the help of trained facilitators from the libraries’ organizational development unit. As one of those trained facilitators, this seemed both a safe way for me get involved, while at the same time satisfying the requirements of scale.

I was amazed at how my colleague’s response could all at once genuinely honor my approach and also persuasively encourage each of us to find our own (maybe different) path. This was not the first time I have questioned the appropriateness of my knack to put a process on things. But that discussion was moment of clarity shaping everything I’ve encountered and thought about since. It has prompted me to examine more closely and even question this tendency that has served me well so far in my path in technical services. I thought I’d begin my introductory post to ACRLog sharing my experience as this kind of librarian, and hopefully in the process discover more about a path forward.

The draw of process

When I talk about process in this context, I mean the way in which I think through the steps of workflow, understand cause and effect, and most efficiently move from point A to point B, all while accounting for the connections in between. For acquisitions and resource sharing, the overarching process we are concerned with is the scholarly communication supply chain and its ability to get the resources users need as efficiently as possible. Individual motivations for this work vary, of course. Some enjoy improving these processes for the economic reasons: the joy of saving money, cutting costs, and demonstrating a return on investment. Some like the ever present source of a puzzle to solve. Many still are motivated by service and how the process makes it easy for other people. Some like fighting for our core values through the process of negotiation with vendors. For the more introverted among us, it seems that processes at their root help create predictability where a thing might otherwise be or feel out of control. This certainly describes the environment in which libraries and we librarians of all types have found ourselves ever since change became the new normal.

The benefit of process is not just for the individual coping with change. It has a direct benefit to the organization as a whole. In my experience, process helps me discover and understand how to use new technologies effectively.  Process has been the language I use to help others through ongoing training. In my library as whole, that language enables me to translate the impact of larger change on our work. Becoming a trained facilitator, I’ve learned better processes of communication between individuals or groups, made meetings run more smoothly, facilitated strategic planning and assessment efforts, and contributed to larger organizational change. How each area within the library addresses their own particular management of perpetual change has brought about all manner of processes, frameworks, assessment models, and mission statements. It seems librarians of all types can put a process on just about everything.

Process in the extreme

The consequence of taking process thinking too far is that it can get in the way of actual doing, or worse, overlook the human need in all of us for deeper meaning and connection. Technical process efficiency taken to its extreme is automation. Even the rise in library automation processes, however, has not eliminated the need for human aspects in the most technical of workflow processes because the environment is filled with people serving people.  I tend to perceive my own process as an act of creativity. As my leadership responsibilities move me from introversion to ambiversion, I prefer to process with others, creating new things and building new relationships. Additional research, suggesting that our minds do not even process or recall like computers at all, supports the notion that there is a more creative present and future for our work.

Processes involved in addressing continual change on an organizational level are essentially human-oriented. These can’t achieve the extreme of automation because they too require ongoing attention for the people involved. How our relationships change, how we communicate across new organizational structures, and how we respond to actual people, are a necessary part of our response to the rapid changes in our work. People and their relationships certainly don’t want to be processed; they need to be seen, understood, and valued.

Process to path

The conclusions I’ve come to are:

  • we need both technical process mindedness and relational mindedness
  • these are not necessarily mutually exclusive

Getting myself to that point means rediscovering the areas of research that piqued my curiosity and inspired my passion for this profession from the start – Devin’s sense-making and research around the reference interview. This research speaks directly to how our systematized human processes and automated systems can and should be relational. The fundamentals of communicating in our profession are constructive,  “tied to specific times, place, and perspectives” (Foreman-Wernet, 2003, p.5). This applies not only for dealing with patrons, but for dealing with one another, inside and across library departments.

I intend to stay involved in interactions and discussion like the one that prompted this reflection. I may not have the capacity yet to effectively communicate, or know how to take action, on issue of diversity, equity and social justice. But I know enough that it is my privilege to learn. My awareness and willingness seem small to me, but I can accept them as important and necessary steps on my larger path.


Dervin, B. and Foreman-Wernet, L. (2003). Sense-making methodology reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin. New Jersey: Hampton Press, Inc.

Reorienting Reference

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Judith Logan, Reference Librarian at the University of Toronto.

The job title in my email signature is “Reference Librarian.”  Every time I send a message to a new faculty member, student, or other non-library person, I always worry that they won’t know what that means. There’s good evidence that my worries are well founded. Kupersmith (2012) compiled over 51 library usability studies and found that “reference” was one of the most commonly misunderstood or not understood terms.

There may have been a time when the word “reference” was both intelligible and valuable to most users, but that is not the case now. Reference remains both a physical location and a service point in most libraries, but the landscape of user-support has changed around them. Any veteran reference librarian can tell you that our users no longer need us as they once did. Our declining annual statistics corroborate this.

So what do we do? Bemoan the loss of a valued function within the library and stubbornly assert our continued relevance while doing the old work that may no longer be necessary? Some, like Verdasca (2015), are going this route, but I think we can do better.  The research skills and service values that we honed over decades are still very useful to both our users and our institutions. We just have to deploy them more effectively.

They don’t need us anymore and that’s a good thing

Usually, reference works like this:

  • A library user encounters a problem
  • The user approaches us asking for help with this problem
  • We use our reference interview skills to analyze the problem
  • We help the user fix the problem or suggest alternatives if it is unfixable
  • The user leaves happy (hopefully), so we are happy

Of course, this is a gross simplification of a reference interaction.  I’m using it only to show that the emphasis of reference work is on the user in front of us.  It is a reactive position. We wait for problems to occur and solve them as best we can, considering our sphere of influence and available resources.  Essentially, we wait for our systems to fail.

Our LibQual results tell us that our users value self-directedness. The Information Control section, which includes such value statements as “A library website enabling me to locate information on my own” and “Easy-to-use access tools that allow me to find things on my own”, always has the highest score for desired service level. And this isn’t just at my library. Check out the ARL notebooks for results from each year’s participating libraries.

Taking a reactive position in our reference work doesn’t fit with our users’ desire for self-sufficiency. They don’t want to have to rely on us to get their research done. We are and should be a last resort.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with a little support, especially in the areas that need a higher level of skill.  Any public service librarian can tell you that we can save our users a great deal of time and frustration. But our support should never be necessary more often than it is desired. As Schmidt and Etches (2014) so perfectly put it “if someone has to be taught how to use something, then it’s the thing that is broken, not the user” (p. 5).

Putting ourselves out of a job

The fundamental goal of reference work should be self-destruction. We know they want to be able to do it themselves, so we should be working proactively to make the library system so easy that they don’t need us to navigate it.

Granted, the resources our user communities need are vast, complicated, and expensive. We’re not going to be able to change the landscape of academic publishing and distribution quickly or easily, but there are lots of little opportunities for improving our services and facilitating better research. We should be using our reference service points primarily as a means of discovering those opportunities.

I’ll give you an example from my library.  Our discovery tool, Summon, indexes many kinds of resources, but we market it primarily as an article discovery tool. Since its implementation in Fall 2011, the search results were filtered to articles only, but if a user performed a new search from the search results screen, the articles filter would be lost and book results would appear in the new search.  Only the very keen eyed user would notice the missing filter or the presence of an ISBN under the title.

Ironically, these book results didn’t even direct users to the catalogue.  They went to our article link resolver—which most users interpreted as a dead end since the “article” never appeared.  You can imagine the confusion and frustration we observed in our users.

For years we addressed this in information literacy classes and online learning objects like screencasts and FAQs, but these interventions were designed to fix the user’s behavior, not Summon.

We finally solved the problem by collaborating with our technical services department. They were working on a redesign of the library website, so we suggested some functionality changes along with the look-and-feel update to Summon. Now it keeps the article filters by default, even in a new search.  Users only see catalogue results if they actively remove the articles filter.  This solution has been in place for about a month now and we’re already receiving thank you messages from users about this specific functionality change.

This is just one small example of how we can use our first hand experience with users’ “pain points” to make the system easier for users to navigate on their own. The trick is communicating this experience to the right collaborators at the right time

The broader implications

What does becoming more user-centered and proactive mean for established reference librarians, units, and services?

First of all, we should be thinking about the way we connect with users.  Are we putting our efforts into services that have the most impact for them? The only way to know to is to ask them and be willing to make hard decisions in response to what we hear. We may love our reference desk, for example, but if it’s not valuable to our users, we need to be willing to let it go.

Many libraries are doing this kind of user experience research to inform service design.  At my library, for instance, our research found that our users often feel confused, lost, and frustrated trying to navigate our giant, concrete building, so we’re piloting a distributed service model where student staff members will provide preemptive support throughout the building (Bell 2013). So, rather than waiting for them to find their way to us (if they can), we’ll go to them.

Secondly, we need to be working more closely with our colleagues.  I come from a large institution where metadata activities, technology services, circulation, reference, and collections all operate quite separately.  We don’t work together and share information as closely as we could, but our big win with Summon showed that collaboration can be very fruitful.

Especially, working with user experience (UX) librarians or units can be mutually beneficial if your library is lucky enough to have them. We can identify useful avenues for UX research and contextualize findings for them while they can help us turn our anecdotal observations into hard evidence and ultimately changes that benefit the user.

If you don’t have a user experience librarian or team at your library, you can take on this role. UX isn’t hard. There are lots of resources out there to help you get started:

  • Check out Weave, a new open-access journal about UX in libraries.
  • Sign up for Influx’s newsletter.
  • Follow @UXlibs on Twitter or attend their conference if you can swing it

Finally, we should also think about what we call ourselves.  It may seem trivial, but it’s critical that our users—our raison d’être— understand who we are and what we can do for them. A new name would also help us reposition ourselves in the minds of those who may hold a narrow, outdated, or pejorative view of what reference means: dusty encyclopedias and bespectacled librarians frowning from behind a big wooden desk.

Reference in its previous incarnations has diminished in importance to our users, so it’s time to regroup and refocus. Like all library services, reference is dedicated to facilitating our institution’s research and teaching activities. Instead of accomplishing this mission reactively—by fixing problems (read: user behavior) as they present themselves—we should be accomplishing it proactively—by listening to our users’ frustrations and desires, and reconfiguring our services and resources to address them.

Works cited

Bell, S. J. (2013, August 6). Recent user experience: Greeters – NO / Preemptive Support – YES. [Blog post]. Designing Better Libraries. Retrieved from

Kupersmith, J. (2012). Library terms that users understand. Retrieved from

Schmidt, A., & Etches, A. (2014). Useful, usable, desirable: Applying user experience design to your library. Chicago: ALA Editions.

Verdesca, A. (2015). What’s in a word: Coming to terms with reference. The Reference Librarian, 56(1), 67–72.

Perks and Quirks of a Single Service Point

In my last post I talked a little bit about the Learning Commons that opened in August at my library, a major renovation that brought exciting changes to the first floor of the Main Library. Although I wasn’t here to see the “before,” the “after” is bright, shiny, and new. It’s an appealing place with a lot more space for students to study and work: there are plenty of computer stations and a variety of flexible study spaces, including 16 group study rooms. Another major new feature of the Learning Commons? The Service Desk.

The Service Desk is a consolidation of what were previously separate service points for circulation and reference into a single service point. During the day, there is typically a mix of people at the desk: a circulation assistant, a librarian or another library assistant, and a few student workers. The librarian staffing the instant message service is also on back-up for the Service Desk, in case it gets particularly busy.

I don’t have any insight to the development of the Learning Commons or the Service Desk, the choices made, or future plans – especially as a relatively new employee (I’ve been in this position for four months, and have been doing shifts on the Service Desk for less than two months). I can only speak from my own experience at the desk, and as with most things, I see an upside and a downside.

Good news first: I really like being out on the desk! I enjoy interacting with people, seeing how patrons use the library’s space and services, and finding out firsthand the kinds of questions people are asking. Since I haven’t done much instruction yet, right now this is how I see students the most. I think that interactions at the Service Desk can also be used to inform what I include in instruction sessions. On top of all that, every time I’m at the desk is an opportunity to get to know other people who work in the same building as me every day, but who I otherwise wouldn’t see very much if at all.

A single service point can create a better experience for library users, eliminating any question or confusion over where to ask for help. At our Service Desk, patrons can check items in and out, pick up Interlibrary Loan material, course reserves, and holds, get basic technology help, and ask anything from “where’s the elevator” to an in-depth reference question. It’s great for our users that they can know “this is where I go to ask for help in the library.”

Now here’s the downside, at least as far as I’m concerned: with a greater variety of questions and interactions handled at one desk, and fewer hours spent staffing the desk for any given individual, it can become more difficult to help patrons efficiently. So far I have been on the Service Desk about once a week for a two-hour shift, and it is more often the circulation aspect that I run into trouble with (sidenote: I personally don’t mind handling circulation transactions, where librarians previously would not have done this at the reference desk). When something less common comes up – creating a community borrower card, for example – it may have been weeks or months since I have last done that process, if ever. With less hours spent at the desk, there is less hands-on practice performing circulation processes, which leads to me getting frustrated when I can’t remember how to do something.

I must say, this is not for lack of training: I have been trained on the circulation processes that I need to know, there are opportunities for additional training sessions, and instructional documents are easily accessible online. Also, because of the variety of employees that staff the desk, no matter what comes up, there is usually someone there that can handle it. If I don’t know the answer or don’t remember how to do something, someone else will, and I can use that as a learning opportunity for myself. However, that doesn’t make those situations any less frustrating for me when they do arise.

The consolidated service desk is new for everybody, so I’m sure that time and experience will work towards smoothing out bumps in the road. But I also have to remind myself that I’m still pretty new here and have less prior knowledge about the library and collections. I’m taking things in and learning about my new environment, and to be honest, there is a lot to learn and it can be difficult to remember even simple things! The other day, somebody asked me “what floor is this call number on?” and I had to check the floorplan to be sure – that’s totally fine, but I also wish I could remember more of those little things without having to check the website or ask someone else.

While out on the desk earlier this week, I came up with a way to work through the downsides I’ve encountered. Whenever I learned something new or something came up that I felt I needed a reminder on, I jotted down a quick note – starting with the call number range on each floor.


To be clear, these notes are purely for my personal gain and not intended to be a record of any kind or contribute to our Service Desk stats. I’ve found in the past that I can remember something better once I’ve written it down, so by taking some quick notes when I’m at the Service Desk, I hope that these bits of information will stick in my mind better. If I had to create a community borrower card for somebody that day, I would have taken notes on that as well.

I like the fact that I learn something new whenever I staff the desk, whether it be about our online resources, common student needs, or how to troubleshoot technology (you may notice several points about a certain scanner in my notes above). I’ll continue to take these notes for now, in addition to reviewing the instructional documents for areas where I know I could use a refresher. I’m optimistic that this will help me retain more information as I continue to learn about my library, and assist patrons more efficiently and effectively.

Information Literacy at the Reference Desk

I’ve been lucky enough to find myself in a challenging and stimulating project: developing an information literacy curriculum for my campus.  If it seems like a long time coming–it is.  While my library has consistently been providing reference and instruction services to our students for a long time, its only been recently that we’ve had to develop a serious curriculum to justify our efforts.  As our university is busy with reaffirming of our accreditation and we’re faced with the usual budget crises, the time came to be able to legitimize our services and collections with an information literacy curriculum.

To articulate our mission, content, pedagogy, and assessment of our services and collections, we had to first take inventory.  To do this, we developed and implemented a citation analysis project.  First, we identified 3 sections of a required course in our most popular academic program.  For the face-to-face section of the course, we delivered a standard information literacy session that covered keywords, Boolean operators, and other database-specific skills.  For the online section, I developed an online guide that covered the same topics and I participated in a discussion forum where I answered specific questions.  THis section also, independently of our suggestion, required that each student meet with a librarian for a reference session.  The final section was our control group where no workshop was given.  We then analyzed the final papers of each section and applied a rubric that measured how well the students cited their sources and integrated them in their papers.

The results of our analysis gave us a lot of great insight into how we can improve our workshops, the topics the students need more help with, and how to better promote our collections.  The most interesting result, though, was the revelation that regardless of any other intervention, the students that came to meet with a librarian did better on their final paper than those who did not.  To put another way: reference interactions are just as an essential component to information literacy instruction as one-shot lessons.

I”m not sure why this surprised us so much, but it definitely did.  Perhaps because we unconsciously equate information literacy with in-class workshops, or because we’ve seen a steady decline in amount of reference transactions, or perhaps just because we weren’t the ones to suggest that students be required to see us, but in any event we learned an important lesson to consider our entire range of services when assessing information literacy.  I recently completed a Library Juice Academy course in critical pedagogy where we learned that information literacy instruction happens everywhere, in all aspects of our work.  We gave examples of how we practice a critical pedagogy in our collections, in our campus committee work, and, of course, in our classrooms.  But none of us considered how the work we do when a student comes to us with a reference question is essential to our pedagogy praxis.  Indeed, the kind of personalized attention we give a student during a reference interaction is the perfect time to bring that student a little closer to information literacy.

Now that we know the significance a personalized reference interaction makes, we’re brainstorming ways to systematically incorporate them into our work.  Perhaps we can suggest professors strongly encourage their students to bring their research topic to us as a requirement of the assignment.  Or, we could set up a discussion forum in our classroom management platforms for online or hybrid classes.  Finally, we could consider a roving reference program to meet students working around campus.  What has worked for your library?

When thinking about our work as librarians, it’s essential to consider all aspects of what we do and to start to engage with creative ways to promote information literacy.  The reference desk is an interesting place to start.  In what surprising locations does information literacy live in your library?  Leave a comment or tweet me @beccakatharine.