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Reference and Information Services Redesign at The Libraries of The Claremont Colleges

Linda Gunter and Cindy Snyder

The Libraries of The Claremont Colleges serve 6,500 undergraduate and graduate students as well as the faculty, staff, and larger community within Claremont University Consortium (CUC), which comprises five undergraduate and two graduate institutions. As a crucial unit of academic support at the colleges, the Libraries conducts an annual review to ensure that its budget is consistent with its mission and strategic goals. This budget review includes discussions of whether resources can be realigned to advance the Libraries’ strategic goals. Then, as necessary, the Libraries asks the colleges’ administrators for budget increases to improve services. The administrators require justification for budget-increase requests. They ask what could be done differently: Is there duplication of efforts? Are the Libraries’ efforts being correctly directed, and is value being realized from these expenditures?

In 2004, to explore answers to these questions and to assess the Libraries’ performance in offering information and reference services, the Libraries requested and received a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a library services improvement project. The primary objectives of the project were to identify those reference and information services most appropriate to and needed by the library user community and to determine how such services could be provided most effectively. The Council on Library and Information Resources administered the two-year grant.


In its strategic plan, CUC identifies four broad strategic goals for the services provided to the colleges. Two of these goals relate directly to the library services improvement project: (1) to enhance service quality; and (2) to build and sustain exceptional library services and resources consistent with the requirements and expectations of elite liberal arts colleges and outstanding graduate programs.

The goal of this project was to better understand what library users need, both in person and remotely, by taking a hard look at the Libraries’ information and reference services and how these services are provided. Because technology continues to change the ways in which things are done, it is necessary to examine regularly the tools available to increase users’ awareness of the services offered and to help them obtain the information they need.

The Libraries’ staff members have always taken pride in the quality of reference and information services they provide. Survey responses and comments over the past few years supported the assumption that these services were exemplary. When only librarians staffed the reference desks in the buildings, they could be held accountable for the quality of service provided. They felt better able to provide the extra touches that made library service unique and valued in the liberal arts college context. When resources were not stretched so thinly, coping with the rate of external change was manageable, and demands on staff time were not as great as they are now. Times have changed, however. Librarians now participate actively in library management, additional emphasis has been given to instruction and outreach, and resources, both print and electronic have multiplied. The observations below point to the need for a thorough review and redesign of reference and information services.

During spring 2002, the Libraries conducted focus groups to assess various library services. Staff were dismayed to discover that a large portion of people in the groups focused on reference and information services did not know about the many and varied services that the Libraries provided. Focus group participants criticized the Libraries for not offering specific services when, in fact, those services were available. Some participants, for example, were unaware of the subject guides available to assist in independent research or of the options for accessing reference services. They did not know that they could schedule appointments with individual reference staff for research assistance and other services.

In spring 2003, the Libraries participated in the LibQual+ Survey. Comments submitted on the surveys indicated that users’ perceptions of reference and information services were not as complimentary as they had been in the past. While there were still positive comments, there were enough neutral or negative comments that staff members felt it was imperative to re-examine the services offered and the methods for offering them.

During preparation for a recent Western Association of Schools and Colleges review of the Libraries, librarians noted that with the ever-expanding list of databases and services provided, they no longer felt able to assist with every service offered. They simply did not have enough time to learn everything. They also commented that they felt unable to meet all the demands of the job: to provide instruction, to develop and manage collections, and to participate in the management of the Libraries, in addition to their reference duties.

As the Libraries’ collections and reseources have grown and services have expanded, a number of service points have been added that are staffed primarily by students or other staff rather than by reference librarians. Since users often refer to any library staff member as a “librarian,” it is hard to know where, or from whom, users received the service that they judged unsatisfactory. While exemplary service should be provided at all service points and from everyone working for the Libraries, pinpointing the source of problems is critical to ensuring improvement.

In studying and evaluating the reference and information services and the locations from which they were provided, it was necessary to examine the layout of the building and to consider what might be done to alleviate some of the confusion and difficulty in navigating it. Honnold/Mudd Library is composed of four separate units joined at different times into one architectural whole. It includes the original, four-floor Honnold building, the three-floor Mudd building, the multi-tier stacks within the Mudd building, and the three floors of the “new library” that joins Honnold and Mudd. The building structure is complex and signage has long been inadequate.

Taking into consideration these points, the following objectives were established for the project: (1) to identify those reference and information services most appropriate to and needed by the library user community; (2) to determine how these services can be most effectively provided; (3) to increase user awareness and knowledge of the range of reference and information services offered by the Libraries; (4) to improve user satisfaction with reference and information services; and (5) to enhance the ability of reference librarians and staff to meet established performance standards.

Staff Involvement in the Project

In January 2004, a five-member reference redesign team was formed to pursue the work of the grant proposal. Cindy Snyder, reference coordinator, was project manager. She drew on staff from various work areas concerned with providing information and reference services to form the team. The team initially included Kelley Bachli, Linda Gunter, Pedro Reynoso, and Ina Thomas. Mary Martin and Julie Shen joined later. As work progressed, other library staff members were involved in subgroups and special tasks. All library staff members were involved in small and large group meetings, workshops, surveys, and focus groups. The goal was to involve as many people as possible in the project in order to gain a wide variety of perspectives. Over time, the team’s membership gradually changed as one and then another staff member left the Libraries’ employment. However, total team membership remained at five.

The reference redesign team met at least weekly over about 18 months. It devoted many of its first meetings to developing an approach to the work-exploring methodologies and dividing the work among team members. The team adopted the philosophy that exploring ideas, vetting them with as many staff members as possible, trying them out, and abandoning them if necessary would result in the most positive, productive, and effective project.

The grant supported the hiring of part-time temporary reference librarians, which freed team members to devote time to developing the redesign project and carrying out its objectives. Each semester, from spring 2004 through fall 2005 (excluding summers), one or two librarians were hired for 10 to 20 hours per week.


The team employed many methods for assessing the quality of the services currently offered and determining needed services. Processes included the following:

  • Literature reviews. The team read and discussed books and articles on a variety of approaches to reference and information services. Among the theories and concepts discussed were business process reengineering, appreciative inquiry, FISH, and topics related to Generation X and the millennials. From these discussions, ideas were distilled and consideration was given to which approaches would be most appropriate.
  • Attendance at local and national conferences. Several team members attended conferences and workshops that addressed reference redesign, including sessions dealing with remote reference services, “chat,” the information-seeking practices of millennials, workplace design, the future of reference services, and assessment of library services.
  • Personal networking.
  • Site visits. Team members made site visits to explore how other libraries offered reference and information services. Libraries visited included Seattle Public Library; Cerritos Library (California); California State University, San Marcos; California State University, San Jose; and Mount Holyoke College Library.
  • Locally developed user surveys. In addition to the formal surveys conducted in 2002 and 2003, the reference redesign team conducted brief surveys of students and of staff in each work unit.
  • Participation in the LibQual+ Survey in spring 2003 and spring 2005.
  • Focus groups. The team and a campus facilitator solicited focus group input as a major source of information.
  • Consultant services. Maureen Sullivan was hired to help refine the methodology and to discuss various philosophies of teamwork, management styles, and approaches to redesign. She made two site visits to Claremont, met with large and small groups of staff, and held several intensive work sessions with the reference redesign team. The team communicated with her by e-mail and telephone over several months and met with her at an out-of-town conference.
  • Meetings of the team representatives with individual library work groups. The team developed specific questions for these meetings to elicit how all staff, regardless of their positions, duties, or responsibilities, felt about user service. Each team member met with two to four work groups. Following these meetings, the team discussed the findings and incorporated them into the general model for the redesign.
  • Meetings of the team and all staff. As work progressed, meetings took place to promote general communication about the team’s work and the work of the consultant and to solicit input from as many staff members as possible.
  • Meetings of the team and the librarians’ group. Since much of the team’s focus was the work of the reference librarians, discussions were held with this group throughout the grant period. The team’s proposed model was distributed in various iterations to librarians and all staff.
  • Meetings of the team with students. Early in the team’s work, students who worked in public service areas of the library were invited to join the group for several discussion sessions. The students provided useful insights, particularly with respect to the needs of the millennials.

Development of the Model

Team members worked steadily for about six months, immersing themselves in reference and information services currently offered or that might be offered. During this time, representatives of the information technology (IT) work unit met with the team to explore options for services in the new reference and information model. As the work progressed, team members decided to focus on developing alternative models. Each team member designed and presented a model to the whole team. The entire model, as well as specific elements, was considered. Through this process, a model for reference and information services redesign was created. The model, summarized in the following paragraphs, is described in detail at

The model consisted of two major sections. The section entitled “Philosophy of the Model” outlined the premises of work as currently accomplished and the principles of the redesign. “Features of the Model,” section two, included physical features, technological features, and assistance strategies. The purpose of the model was to integrate the present information, reference, and search center assistance desks and to ensure that personal and electronic services would be equally welcoming and helpful. To accomplish this, the model addressed the provision of reference and information services, the use of technology to enhance services, training for all levels of staff, IT needs, staffing needs, and feedback mechanisms.

Specific features of the model included plans for a new service desk and the creation of new staff positions. The team proposed that a welcome desk be placed in the lobby of Honnold/Mudd Library; that a supervisory coordinator position be developed; that an information assistant position be created for staff and students who provide the first-tier level of reference service at a new information and reference desk; and that an information assistant coordinator position be designed to supervise these staff. The model also suggested that continuous user feedback be included in the Libraries’ Web revision project, which was scheduled for spring 2006.

Concurrent with presenting the draft of the model to staff and soliciting their input, the team created additional teams to design and staff the welcome desk and to redesign the physical layout of the search center. The search center redesign team drew up plans for rearranging computers and peripheral equipment in the original search center space and made plans to expand the search center into a room adjacent to the new site for a combined reference and information desk. The new plans allowed for placement of computers to meet requirements for private work and group projects. The team also presented design possibilities for the proposed reference and information desk. These plans were vetted with all who would work at the new desk, as well as with all staff.

A trial welcome desk was put into place in the Honnold/Mudd Library for one week at the beginning of the fall 2004 and the spring 2005 semesters. The response was favorable, and the idea was incorporated into the reference redesign model. The welcome desk team met several times to plan the location, setup, staffing, and training needs for the proposed permanent welcome desk. The desk would be placed opposite one of the two sets of entrance doors and would be visible to all who entered the library. The new library elevator, which opened to the entrance lobby, would provide access to all floors of the library. Before this redesign, operating this elevator required a staff key. Full access to the elevator would necessitate moving one set of security gates downstairs to the lobby and require that the welcome desk be staffed all hours the library is open.

Implementation of the Redesign Model

Following staff review of multiple iterations of the draft document, the model was accepted and work began on the following physical and service changes.

  • Installation of a combined services desk. Three individual service desks (reference, information, and search center assistance) were merged into one location. A new desk was ordered and installed in spring 2005. Decisions regarding placement of telephones and computers were made and implemented. The desk would be staffed by one information assistant and one or two reference librarians during most hours of library operation; an IT staff member would be there during some hours. Assessment of this staffing model continues as staff members gain experience working in this group configuration.
  • Establishment of the welcome desk. The philosophy for the welcome desk is that everyone who enters the building will be greeted. First-time users or others who do not have college or community cards will be offered information about the Libraries; users with substantive questions will be referred upstairs to the reference and information desk. When the welcome desk was established, all staff members were encouraged to volunteer at least one hour per week. A tenet of the reference redesign model is that everyone on the staff is a “roaming information provider,” and work at the welcome desk fosters that philosophy. Many staff members who are new to public service have expressed satisfaction in doing this work.
  • Development of job descriptions and filling the new positions. The reference redesign team, with library administration, developed job descriptions for the positions of information assistant coordinator and welcome desk coordinator, and the CUC human resources unit approved the positions. The positions were posted internally, providing opportunities for staff advancement to supervisory responsibilities. The positions were filled in March 2005. Office areas were designated, and the work of developing policies and staff training materials began. Workers were hired and trained. Adjustments continue to be made, especially in training, as these jobs evolve. It is intended that the welcome desk will be staffed with regular staff during weekday daytime hours, and that student staff will work the evening and weekend hours. Conversely, the reference and information desk will be staffed most hours with student staff, and a smaller number of hours will be filled with regular library staff during weekdays.
  • Relocation of the security gates to the library lobby entrance. Gates were moved from the second floor to the lobby to provide security for the collection.
  • Opening of the library elevator for patron access to all floors, providing compliance with the Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA) and enabling all users to get around the building without assistance.
  • Development of training plans for the information assistants. The information assistant coordinator is responsible for training regular staff, part-time temporary staff, and student information assistants, and for conducting one-on-one and group training. A training team is planned to develop individual training modules and to place these modules on the Libraries’ Web site. These plans are described in detail at
  • Scheduling of regular and student staff for the welcome desk and the information and reference desk. The two coordinators are responsible for the scheduling of these desks, both of which are staffed all the hours the library is open.
  • Development of budgets to support the new desks. No new funds were available to support these functions. Money previously budgeted to cover student assistants at the search center assistance desk and to staff the former information desk were transferred to provide some funding for student staff. Because of budget constraints, it is important for regular staff to volunteer to serve at the welcome desk for an hour per week. It is hoped that all staff will ultimately work at this desk, and that job descriptions for all new library positions will include this commitment.
  • Installation of chat software for instant messaging (IM) with users. When the redesign project began, the reference librarians had been using 24/7 Reference virtual software for about three years. Librarians monitored this service, which serves users throughout the United States and Canada, one hour per day, Monday through Friday. With the redesign, it was decided to try monitoring 24/7 Reference from the reference and information desk during regularly staffed hours for Claremont users only. After testing this for about five months, it was determined that Claremont users were not using the service extensively and that they would be better served with more familiar chat software. In fall 2005, the Libraries’ IT staff installed GAIM on the reference and information desk PCs, with links displayed prominently on the Web site. GAIM is an interface that allows users to chat with the librarians from their AOL, MSN, or Yahoo IM accounts. The service began slowly but grew dramatically over the first semester of use.
  • Design of a “Need Help?” button. This button was a featured part of the redesign model. The goal was to communicate with users in ways they knew and used, primarily electronically. The service was based on the belief that a prominently displayed button on every page of the Libraries’ Web site would be particularly attractive to students and that it would encourage them to contact librarians for help from any location, rather than coming to a reference desk as the traditional reference model dictated. Redesign team members worked with IT representatives to develop the button. The button displays in the upper-right corner of the Libraries’ Web pages, in bold red letters. The text of the button reads: “Need Help? Ask Us” and has three links: for e-mail/chat/phone, linking to the appropriate information for sending an e-mail reference question; for using IM services such as AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, or MSN Messenger; and for contacting the individual reference librarians or the reference and information desk.
  • Movement of search center networked printer. The search center was expanded into two rooms and the copy center was relocated and given responsibility for servicing the one networked printer. All search center PCs print to that machine, and students collect their print jobs from it. Copy center hours have increased over the past two years to better serve users.
  • Relocation of multimedia equipment to more patron-accessible areas. Before the redesign, multimedia machines were located in a locked room accessible by a reference librarian. With the redesign, all machines were moved out of this room. DVD viewing capability was installed on all search center computers, scanning equipment is now available in the search center, and GIS software is loaded on two designated search center machines. Some exceptions remain. Video viewing is available on two public machines and in a private location on another floor of the library. The plotter for the GIS software remains inside the copy center because of the need for assistance with this process and the high cost of the equipment.
  • Proposal for an IT staff presence at or near the reference and information desk. Beginning with the fall 2005 semester, IT scheduled one staff member at the reference and information desk during the hours service was most needed. After working with this schedule, it was decided that there was little need for full-time IT presence at the desk. An IT IM group was established and a link to the group was added to all reference and information desk computers. IT staff make it a point to respond to reference IM queries immediately. If personal assistance is required, they come to the reference and information desk to help.
  • Installation of multilingual functionality on all search center machines. User comments indicated that many would like to have Web pages display in Chinese, Japanese, or Korean languages. This application has now been activated on computers in all campus libraries.
  • Proposal for two-way radios and headsets. A plan emerged to provide librarians or information assistants with headsets when they left the desk to assist patrons. They could then be reached if needed by using a headset instrument at the desk. Headsets could also be used by librarians roaming the building looking for people needing assistance. Although testing was successful, a few participants in focus groups felt that the radio headsets and the “roaming librarian” were distracting, and the idea was abandoned.
  • Automatic start-up and shutdown of public computers. This technology had been introduced prior to the reference redesign project, but the initial implementation was unsatisfactory. It has since been put in place and is effective. The time required to start up and shut down 30 or more machines is now spent assisting users with their information and reference needs.
  • Creation of an electronic rolodex and blog. The team and the reference information staff discussed several options for making information more readily available to the staff and decided to implement an “electronic rolodex” and a reference blog. The objective of the rolodex was to provide a quick means to look up answers to patrons’ questions, many of which were asked repeatedly, and to respond to difficult questions. Librarians would no longer have to research the same topics repeatedly, and information assistants could use information already discovered. The rolodex was created using Microsoft Access software, and training was provided for populating the rolodex with information useful to staff at the reference and information desk. The rolodex was to be loaded only at this desk and would not be publicly accessible. The reference blog was created and posted on the Libraries’ Web site. A public resource, it offered topics of immediate interest. After the rolodex and the blog had been tested in use, it became apparent that the information they provided was somewhat redundant. The rolodex was abandoned, and the blog, renamed refblog, now includes searchable categories such as “course assignments,” “rolodex resources,” “stories,” and “Web searching tips.”
  • Marketing the new services and desk design. The Libraries’ marketing group played a pivotal role in publicizing the new and redesigned reference and information services and in introducing users to the new desk with its reconfigured staffing. Marketing staff designed and produced bookmarks and table tents advertising the “Need Help?” button and the various “Ask a Librarian” services. In spring 2005, an evening open house was held at the library to introduce the new layout and services. Refreshments were served, CD-ROMs were given to each person, and there were drawings for USB flash drives.

A report on progress in information and research services redesign as of June 14, 2005 is provided at

Assessment of the Reference Redesign

The reference redesign team used a variety of methods to assess the effects of the project. At the beginning of the model design, a student minisurvey was conducted (see This was followed in October 2004 by another brief survey; results are available at In return for filling out the surveys, students were offered a candy bar. Response was good, and much information was gained about student knowledge regarding library services. The last question on the minisurvey asked students whether they would be interested in participating in a focus group. There were many positive responses.

In late October and early November 2004, a series of focus groups was conducted for faculty, staff, and students. Twenty-two members of the colleges attended these sessions. The graduate student and the faculty groups were held in late afternoon; the undergraduate group took place in the evening. Refreshments and small cash payments were given to students. Faculty members were given gift certificates for a local restaurant. Each focus group consisted of 6 to 10 participants. A graduate student in behavioral and organizational sciences facilitated the conversations. One or two team members attended, took notes, and provided clarification when requested. Hearing the conversations and observing body language were useful to the team. The facilitator prepared a report of the results of the focus groups and submitted it to the reference redesign team (see

To gain a better understanding of the effects of the changes, another series of focus groups composed of library staff was held in summer 2005. The goal was to gather information from all staff now working occasional hours at the welcome desk or the reference and information desk. Feedback was solicited regarding the new physical layout of the desks, staffing arrangements and schedules, the new electronic communication programs, the ways in which regular and student staff now interacted, and the overall impact of the redesign. Five staff focus groups with a total of 26 participants were convened in late June and early July 2005. A report on the findings of these groups was issued on August 5, 2005 (see In late July, staff members unable to participate in the focus group sessions were surveyed by e-mail. The questions asked were similar to those in the focus groups. The findings of the focus groups and the surveys were mixed. Some users were positive, others were ambivalent, while still others were confused by the new design. Further surveys are planned.

Statistics gathered from the new electronic user communications were analyzed. After discontinuing the 24/7 Reference software and implementing the “Need Help?” button and the IM service, use of IM increased to a total of 286 messages for the first three months, compared with 104 for the entire previous year, confirming that today’s students communicate by IM and expect this service. In addition, the team implemented Web-based continuous feedback by means of a quick link on the Libraries’ home page.

A final survey of survey of users of the Honnold/Mudd Library was done in December 2005. Results are available at

Conclusions and Lessons Learned

The reference redesign team took on a life of its own. Some parts of the work went well, and some could have been done differently. Some of the more successful methods used included meetings with a variety of staff in small and large groups; much one-on-one discussion; giving serious attention to the results of user surveys and taking steps to implement desired services; setting up two pilot welcome desk projects to gauge the reaction of staff and library users; and including and recruiting as many staff as possible for specific purposes such as the formation of additional teams to design the new reference and information desk and the welcome desk, and to market the new design and services. In reviewing the model adopted by the reference redesign team and endorsed by staff for implementation, several key requirements have been initiated or accomplished.

  • Three service desks have been merged into one, allowing users to approach one desk for assistance rather than wondering where to go for help.
  • A welcome desk has been set up at the entrance to the library. This has already received positive feedback from staff and library visitors.
  • Training has been developed and presented to staff and students who staff the reference and information desk and the welcome desk.
  • Opportunities have been created for staff to work at public service points.
  • Multimedia equipment has been moved out of locked rooms and made available for use in the search center.
  • New ways of electronic communication have been installed (e.g., Microsoft Communicator and IM), providing services more efficiently and for more hours of the day.
  • Multilingual browser capability has been installed on search center PCs.
  • An IT presence has been established at the reference and information desk, initially in person, and later accessible through an IM account.
  • An ADA-compliant workstation with Jaws and ZoomText software has been set up.

It is difficult to sustain a project of this nature over an extended time given the staff’s other commitments. Whether because of a lack of sustained interest, a lack of time, or funding constraints, not all elements of the proposal or all recommendations of the model have been put into operation. Features still to be implemented include the full complement of proposed training modules; information kiosks in areas where no staff are available to help (e.g., with periodicals and microforms) or in offsite locations farthest from a library; signage and directional assistance for the Honnold/Mudd Library; and plans for expansion of the lobby/entrance area of Honnold/Mudd Library.

From the outset, the team that devised the model relied extensively on brainstorming and group discussion. This required a significant amount of time, and meetings sometimes became tedious. Some aspects of the work bogged down. It was difficult to know when to stop brainstorming or when disagreement was disruptive rather than healthy. While team members could have sought ways to do things differently, they respected each other’s opinions and contributions and generally worked well together.

One aspect of the team’s work that needed more attention was communication with the rest of the Libraries’ staff. Until the model was presented, some staff occasionally commented that they didn’t know enough about what the team was doing. In retrospect, it would have been wise to communicate with staff on a regular schedule rather than sporadically. Perhaps a “What Has Reference Redesign Done This Week?” e-mail would have eliminated the speculation over team discussions and their impact on individuals’ work.

Another lesson learned was the importance of being willing to try new things, to abandon those things deemed unworkable, and to apply aspects of unworkable ideas. While the roaming librarian idea was discarded as a formal feature of the model, the idea increased the expectation that all library staff will provide assistance when asked and offer a welcoming presence throughout the building.

As noted in the introductory section of this report, many theories and models of organization, such as business process reengineering, FISH, and appreciative inquiry, were explored. While none of these methods was used in its pure form, features of many were applied. The model developed reflects the Libraries’ unique organization and the services needed and wanted by its community of users. Implicit to the model is the belief that services will continue to develop and that they will keep pace with the best practices available. The reference redesign project and the grant supporting it provided the opportunity to devote time and energy to learning what users need and want. It has also allowed the flexibility to spend time designing and implementing services to better satisfy those needs and wants.

For Further Reading

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