Behler

Ask! Your Library at the HUB: Penn State Libraries' Experiences Providing Reference Services at the Campus Student Union Building

 

Anne Charlotte Behler
Information Literacy Librarian
Pennsylvania State University

Wendy Girven
Library Assistant II
Pennsylvania State University

Introduction

The academic reference desk is receiving less traffic than it once did, and many libraries have diversified their service models in order to address new modes of research that are in constant evolution-most now offer at least one form of electronic reference, many librarians have joined social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, and many are experimenting with various forms of roving reference. In addition, although the reference statistics reported annually by Academic and Research Libraries (ARL) are not entirely transparent due to individual differences in institutions, the overall number of reference transactions has been in a constant state of decline, down 48 percent between 1991 and 2005, indicating that assistance on a one-on-one basis is in much smaller demand than it once was (ARL 7,9). At first glance this drop might seem to convey a state of bleakness for library service in general; however, this trend has been accompanied by an almost directly inverse 58-percent increase in group presentations, with the number of participants in these sessions up by 98 percent during the same time period (1991-2005) (ARL 7). This combination of statistics is indicative of a movement towards more social learning environments, as well as the tendency for students to experiment with research on their own in the increasingly electronic environment the library and the information world as a whole present.

In "Disconnects Between Library Culture and Millennial Generation Values," McDonald and Thomas remind readers that today's research libraries need to work to "remain relevant to the next generation of students" (4). Libraries can do this many ways, including evaluating service models and policies so that they meet the needs of "[e]merging communities of research library users…" (McDonald and Thomas 5). In the spirit of McDonald and Thomas's words, the librarians and staff of the Gateway Library, the library dedicated to undergraduate and first-time library users at Penn State University, have made a commitment to physically go where their users are, with the specific goal of providing services to students at their exact point of need by piloting a library service point in the student union building (the Hetzel Union Building or HUB).

David Tykoson notes, "to be effective the library must meet the unique information and service needs of its own community. Expectations for information and service needs vary greatly from one community to another (even for the same kind of library), but the role of each library is to meet particular expectations of its own community" (184).  Penn State University's main campus is home to over 36,000 undergraduates, over 6,000 graduate students, and over 11,000 faculty and staff (Common Data Set). This means that within the large community of Penn State library users, there are many diverse populations with very different library and research needs.

A literature search revealed that many libraries have experimented with roving reference services inside their library buildings. Harvard College Library, the W.A.C. Bennett Library at Simon Fraser University and Rutgers University Libraries have reported experiences offering library assistance in other campus locations at the time the Penn State service was being conceived (Orphan 441) (Wong & O'Shea 90-92) (Kuchi et al. 310-317).  The model which provided guidance for offering remote reference service at Penn State was the Rutgers University example. In 2002, the Rutgers University Libraries launched a service desk location in their campus student union building, an experience that yielded mixed results. The Rutgers librarians found that people did not expect to find them outside the library, and so most of the questions fielded were directional in nature. Nevertheless, the librarians had positive impressions of the opportunity to meet their students in their own environment, and get to know and touch base with students outside the library who otherwise might never have sought library assistance (Kuchi et al. 317).  More recently, the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) librarians experimented with offering reference services in several locations on campus, choosing to focus on those that also had other academic services present, such as the Academic Enrichment Center, which resides in an apartment complex clubhouse. As one UTSA librarian stated, their service was an "opportunity to be an advocate FOR the library and a bridge TO the library..."(Del Bosque & Chapman 247).  This finding is echoed in the Penn State experiences.

Drawing inspiration from the Rutgers experience, Penn State University librarians and reference staff ran two separate trials offering reference service in the HUB during the Spring and Fall semesters of 2006 with the goals of learning about their users, assisting students with research needs in the same location where they are working and studying, sharing information about library services, and evaluating the overall costs, benefits, and methods of offering the service on an ongoing basis. Special attention was paid to the marketing of the service, with the hopes that people would take notice and seek it out.

Why the HUB?

In selecting a location to offer remote reference services to students, the committee wanted to be sure to select a place that is relevant to students' habits and activities. The OCLC report "Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources" includes recommendations from students about how to make the library a better place. These recommendations include extending hours of operation, increasing the amount of seating and making it more comfortable, expanding the facility, making the environment more inviting and up-to-date, adding a café or snack shop, decreasing the noise level, and having friendlier staff (DeRosa 133).

While the library itself is in the process of undergoing many of these changes, the HUB is an already-established location on campus where students can enjoy those desired amenities. The HUB provides an inviting, open atmosphere with abounding natural light, a lounge with TVs that show news all day, many different food vendors, group study areas that are quiet, and comfortable seating everywhere.

The HUB also offered the opportunity to break free of stereotypes and perceptions about the types of services libraries can and do offer. Among the perceptions OCLC reported is that the first thing that comes to students' minds when they think about the library is books. In fact, approximately 70% of 18-24-year-olds responded this way (DeRosa 208). Establishing a library presence in the HUB would give library staff the opportunity to converse with students about many library services--as students asked questions about the library service at the HUB, our expectation was that conversational doors would be opened to talk about many of the other services that the library offers.

Preliminary Planning

Before the new service began, it was important to clearly define the purpose and expectations for the pilot. Librarians and reference staff from the Gateway Library met several times as a committee in order to establish the mission and goals for the service. "To extend one-on-one research support beyond the walls of the library by integrating library service into the student environment" became the group's mission statement. Goals for the service included increasing accessibility of library services, being student- focused, increasing visibility of the library within the academic community, educating users to effectively use library services and resources, using Libraries' electronic collections to facilitate research, and supporting Penn State's goal of engaging students outside the classroom. The committee also determined desired locations, necessary equipment such as a computer station, hours of service, and other objectives before presenting the idea to the staff of the HUB.

Representatives from the committee met with the Director of Unions and Student Activities of the HUB to determine an appropriate location for the service. The Director generously offered what he and the committee identified as a "prime real estate" location, a portion of the HUB's already-established general information desk. This desk had the potential of receiving high traffic during the day and evening because of its location near seating areas and along the route of campus tours. The trial period would begin in April 2006 to target the final exam period, a time that usually prompts an increase in library resource needs, and extend throughout the summer to establish permanence to the academic community. Hours were determined with input from the HUB staff and an assessment of student traffic in the building. The committee chose Tuesdays through Thursdays as the best time for the service because students use the area those days for studying and group projects, as well as a stop for lunch or dinner. Both evening and daytime hours were offered between the hours of 11:00am and 9:00pm. The station was to be staffed by both library faculty and staff from the Gateway Library, who voluntarily added the HUB desk shifts to their regular library desk duties. Part-time staff and student employees were also involved with staffing the station, particularly during the evening hours.

The First Trial and Results

The remote reference service point was run on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from April through August 2006. The HUB service committee worked closely with the Libraries' Public Relations and Marketing Department to create an effective image and corresponding posters for the service. The slogan for advertising the service was "Ask! Your library @ the HUB." The ASK! slogan is already established with the Libraries' marketing campaign for reference and virtual reference services. Posters were placed near the location of the reference service. Advertisements were also published in the student newspaper and electronic newswire as well as an interview in the Daily Collegian, an independent student newspaper, with library staff discussing the new service.

The desk was equipped with two laptops and a printer for use with assisting patrons who were looking for articles or other library resources. Library-related giveaways such as bookmarks and candy attracted students and visitors, and prompted many questions about what the library staff was doing outside library walls. In addition, numerous pieces of literature including guides to the library, campus maps, and business cards for subject specialists were available to both support the service and provide users with even more information about the University Libraries.

Once the services began, it quickly became apparent that many students and others did not understand the distinction between library staff and the HUB information desk staff. Staff had to refer many questions that were not related to the library to the information desk staff. During the first month of the service, only eight percent of the questions received were library related; the remainder were HUB related (directional) questions. Another unexpected issue arose when the space began to be advertised as a ticketing location for school performances. Meanwhile, library signage did not seem effective at notifying people of the distinction between the ticketing service, the information desk, and the library service.

Re-Evaluation

Due to the unexpected issues associated with the location chosen for the first trial the service was in need of re-evaluation. At the end of the first trial run, the committee met again to discuss ways to change the service to be more conducive to meeting the goals that were initially established. Committee members were in agreement that such a service definitely had a place in the HUB, but that before it moved forward, they needed to examine all aspects of the first trial closely for both successes and failures. An assessment was taken of the current issues and the ways in which goals were being met to determine how the service should proceed into the fall semester. New areas for the service were discussed and ultimately it was decided that the service should move to a separate table or kiosk in a high-traffic area so that it would be distinguishable to interested students. New posters were also created to make the service more obvious to potential patrons and users. Signs with an emphasis on the word 'library' instead of 'help' or 'ask' were decided upon to clarify the purpose of the service to users who wouldn't expect to see the library having a reference station outside library walls.

Service hours were also reconsidered. During the late morning and early afternoon hours, traffic in the HUB is centered on travel between classes and eating lunch. With this realization, the new hours for the service would run from 3pm to 9pm on Monday through Wednesday. Staffing was expanded beyond the Gateway Library to include other faculty and full-time staff from various subject areas in the Libraries. This decision would ensure commitment to customer service as well as providing library expertise for patrons. In the first trial, student employees and part-time staff were often double staffed at the service point, but only single staff coverage would be needed if full time staff and faculty were utilized there.

The new location would continue to have library literature and library giveaways. These worked well during the first trial to attract students and other patrons and encouraged them to ask questions. The station also maintained the equipment from the first trial including the laptop and printer.

Second Trial & Data

Once plans for the second HUB reference service trial had been laid and hours and staffing established, the service was ready to begin. Equipped with mini-sharpies and brain-shaped stress balls bearing the Libraries' logos, as well as a log book and informal anonymous surveys for users to fill out, and ready for anything, the service's staff established their presence in the HUB.

Because this trial had been well-publicized, located in a high-traffic prominent spot near popular study areas, and was targeted to the busiest time of the semester, expectations were that the service would attract some substantial research-related questions. Nevertheless, the experience of the first trial in the HUB had taught the group that the outcomes of offering such a unique service location would be completely unpredictable.

So that the trial could be better evaluated at its conclusion, staff for the service were asked to keep a running log of interactions and observations during each of their shifts. Analysis of the log reveals that the second trial was much more successful, eliciting primarily library-related questions and gathering valuable feedback from patrons about what they liked or disliked about a library presence in that location. In fact, approximately 89 percent of the 228 questions posed were library-related. Staff for the service did note that rather than serving as a starting point for researchers, the HUB reference service acted primarily as a customer service and marketing tool for the University Libraries, an extremely important function and one to take into account when making staffing decisions for future runs of the service.

Nearly half of recorded interactions were with people who were curious about what the service was. These individuals tended not to have questions at the time they stopped, but many expressed that the service was a good idea. Another large percentage of visitors used the Libraries' station in the HUB as an opportunity to ask about other library services, such as the main library's newly available 24-hour facilities, how to register as a library user, or renew books. Additionally, many faculty members stopped by and promised to advertise the service to their students; a few even used the opportunity to find out who their faculty librarian liaison was and learn how to schedule a library instruction session for their classes. Many visitors also freely offered suggestions of what services they'd like the library to offer, which were usually suggestions for longer hours (another great opportunity to market the library's 24-hour service areas), but also included requests for book drops dispersed around campus and allowing and/or offering food both in the libraries and as a part of the HUB service. Table 1 offers a snapshot of the types of questions asked, and the people who asked them.

The second trial data also indicates the amount of traffic for the service. Overall, 206 library related inquiries were received during the approximately 120 hours that the service was offered. Of the primary service days, Wednesdays saw the most student library-related inquiries, 42% of the total number of questions asked, as indicated by Figure 1. Mondays came in second with 23% of questions being library-related, and Tuesdays brought 17%. The service received an average 1.7 questions per hour overall, however the hours of 3-4pm received the heaviest traffic and averaged 2.5 questions per hour (see Figure 2).  The hours and days are not entirely conclusive as the service was also held twice on a Sunday and sometimes only open from 3-7pm instead of 3-9pm. The data does provide a guideline to assist librarians in making future decisions about the best times to offer the service.

Table 1 - ASK! Your Library at the HUB: Trial 2 Inquiries by Type

 

Library-Related Inquiries

Other Inquiries

 

Date & Time

Student

Faculty

Other

 

10/23 3-9pm

24

0

2

4

 

10/24 3-7pm

4

4

1

0

 

10/25 3-9pm

18

0

1

0

 

10/30 3-8pm

4

0

0

1

 

10/31 3-7pm

9

0

0

1

 

11/1 3-9pm

15

1

0

2

 

11/5 3-9pm

5

1

1

0

 

11/6 3-9pm

5

0

1

0

 

11/7 3-?pm

11

1

0

3

 

11/8 3-9pm

6

0

0

0

 

11/12 3-7pm

1

0

0

1

 

11/13 3-9pm

7

0

0

1

 

11/14 3-7pm

7

0

0

1

 

11/15 3-9pm

9

2

0

0

 

11/19 3-?pm

1

0

0

0

 

11/27 3-9pm

8

0

0

0

 

11/28 3-7pm

5

0

0

1

 

11/29 3-9pm

4

0

1

2

 

12/4 3-7pm

6

0

0

0

 

12/5 3-7pm

2

1

0

1

 

12/6 3-8pm

16

1

0

1

 

12/11 3-9pm

8

0

0

1

 

12/12 ??

0

0

0

1

 

12/13 3-9pm

5

1

7

1

 

Subtotals

180

12

14

22

Total = 228

Percentage of Total Inquiries

78.95%

5.26%

6.14%

9.65%

 

 

Figure 1- Inquiries by Day of Week

 

Figure 2- Inquiries by Hour

Interactions with students, faculty, and members of the public were largely noted to be positive ones, and although results of the informal anonymous surveys administered were not numerous enough to be conclusive in any way, they do indicate that more than three quarters (80%) of those who participated reported they would make use of a permanent library consulting service in the HUB. In addition to recommending a continuation of the service, respondents also suggested that residence hall commons would be good locations to offer library consultation.

Recommendations/Conclusion

The Penn State Libraries' HUB service committee agrees that having a library presence in the HUB has been a valuable and positive experience. This presence has provided the opportunity to promote the library and its services, learn about student habits in an environment in which they are comfortable, engage students in discussion about library and university services, and offer a service point that is outside the expected norm which translates into reaching users who wouldn't normally venture inside the library itself. According to the informal survey, 38% of students polled never studied at the library, but 88% of those students said that they would likely use the service in the HUB. The exercise of maintaining a log book was invaluable to learning more about the users we were hoping to reach with the service.  Reference service staff noted not only the interactions they had with patrons; they also made valuable observations about what activities were going on in the HUB.  Staff reported user feedback such as, "This service is neat… will come back when working on a paper" and "I'm going to have my students check this out." These and similar interactions have been extremely helpful in evaluating the scope and function of the remote service point.

One of the goals initially established by the HUB service committee was to assist students with research needs in the same area where they were already doing their work.  While students were observed to be actively involved in many different types of work--group projects, individual study, cooperative assignments--these were not the students who, in the end, sought the reference service offered.  The majority of students who had already settled into focused work time were beyond the point of needing library help with research. Thus, the end result was that the service was used primarily as an 'about the library' information station rather than a traditional reference desk.  Future offerings of the HUB library station, therefore will be designed and staffed according to the marketing purpose they served, including library news and guides, rotating library events fliers, and front-lines desk staff (not necessarily faculty) who are well-trained in answering access services and public services questions. Marketing for the service will also need to evolve to reflect the primary functions the service is providing.

During each of the trials, staff of the service learned that it is extremely important to be flexible and re-evaluate the service often. Locations initially identified as "prime real estate" may ultimately be abandoned for spots that weren't previously considered, as a result of unexpected circumstances and the lessons of experience. Gathering patron comments and logging questions during the second trial dramatically assisted the team in evaluating both the goals the service was meeting, as well as the general public perception of such a service.  One of the biggest challenges to offering this type of service is staffing.  No additional people were hired in order to staff the Penn State remote reference point, so it is important to constantly monitor what type of expertise is required, demand for the service, and the cost of providing it.

Evaluating the service between the Spring and Fall semester trials dramatically changed results, which is evidenced by the change in the numbers and types of questions and conversations that took place at the two very different service points. Reevaluation of this sort should be ongoing. Even after a much more successful trial in the Fall semester, Penn State faculty and staff are already in another evaluation process, and anticipate continuing this service, incorporating changes that match what has been learned through careful statistics- and log-keeping, student input, and observation.

Works Cited

"2006-2007 Common Data Set." Enrollement and Persistance. University Budget Office. October 2006. 28 Aug 2007 <http://www.budget.psu.edu/CDS/Enrollment.asp?Location=UP&AY=20062007>.

Association of Research Libraries. ARL Statistics. Washington: Association of Research Libraries, 2005.

De Rosa, Cathy. Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources: A Report to the OCLC Membership. Dublin, Ohio: OCLC Online Computer Library Center, 2005.

Del Bowque, Darcy, and Kimberly Chapman. "Your Place or Mine? Face-to-Face Reference Services Across Campus." New Library World., 108.5/6 (2007): 247-262.

Kuchi, Triveni, Laura Bowering Mullen, and Stephanie Tama-Bartels. "LIBRARIANS WITHOUT BORDERS - Reaching Out to Students at a Campus Center." Reference & User Services Quarterly. 43.4 (2004): 310-317.

McDonald, R. H., and C. Thomas. "Disconnects Between Library Culture and Millennial Generation Values." EDUCAUSE Quarterly : EQ.. 29.4 (2006): 4-6.

Orphan, Stephanie. "News from the field: Harvard takes reference on the road." College and Research Libraries News. 67.4 (2003): 441.

Tyckoson, David A. "What Is the Best Model of Reference Service?" Library Trends. 50.2 (2001): 183-196.

Wong, Sandra and Anne O'Shea. "Librarians Have Left the Building: Ask Us Here! At Simon Fraser University." Feliciter 3 (2004): 90-92.



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