The Evolving & Expanding Service Landscape Across Academic Libraries

May 27, 2015, 3:25 pm

We all know there has been a national decline in reference transactions. Here is some raw ARL data suggesting that questions have dropped nationally from 20,000,000 in 1995 to just barely 5,000,000 in 2014.


from Association of Research Libraries

Librarians have responded by introducing new models: the one-desk model, the tiered model, the drop-in/office hours model and even the no desk model.

While I admire this ingenuity… this post isn’t about that. But it is about people who have questions.

During this same time — while reference transactions were declining — other service points migrated into our environments. Writing Centers, Communication Studios, Multimedia Studios, IT Help Desks, and Adaptive/Assistive Technologies Support Spaces are all common today.


Scholars’ Lab, U of Virginia

Other niche areas have emerged including data visualization rooms, GIS Labs, markerspaces, Digital Humanities Centers, Scholars’ Labs  language labs, and gaming labs.

Libraries are as robust as ever. We may be answering fewer traditional questions, but collectively we are involved across many more components of the academic enterprise.

New Service Layer?
There seems to be another type of service layer emerging. I think of it as pop-up boutiques or highly specialized services that appear temporary to offer very personalized help.

Libraries have been doing these types of activities for a while. Things like stress relief events during finals, tutors on certain nights, flu shots, and meditation sessions. At Virginia Tech we’ve hosted Career Services to review resumes before job fairs. Basically bringing in services from around campus and giving them a temporary outpost. All of these efforts are an extension of a common desire we share for helping our communities thrive.

But I’m noticing something different now. A few examples:

1. A few years ago we had a professor reserve our scale-up classroom to hold office hours one evening a week. This wasn’t his normal office hours, but rather, hours he dedicated to encourage students to come in and talk about their digital projects. He was aiming for humanities and social science majors and wanted to offer them technical support as well as context, ideation, and feedback. These sessions were open to everyone regardless of discipline.

2. A few weeks ago I was showing a local entrepreneur around our commons areas. He told me that he offers office hours at a local coffee shop to anyone in the community who wants to discuss business ideas and strategy. He built a startup while at Virginia Tech and is doing well for himself. He inquired about the library being a place for these conversations.

3. This semester we began hosting Virginia Tech Intellectual Properties for a few hours a week. They aim to help people develop and protect their intellectual property. This group specifically asked to be in the library because they want to interact with undergraduates. Why do they need help?


4. Georgia Tech Libraries hosted an Ethics Lab twice a week. This invited people to connect with the Center for Ethics and Technology to discuss difficult decisions, contentious public issues, or just concerns with coursework or research.


You can see some commonality. Interdisciplinary. Intrinsic. Drop-in sessions. Project-oriented. Problem-based. Informal. Conversational. Personalized. Open-ended. Open to everyone.

Perhaps there is something different (mentally? mood?) that occurs when you talk with someone in this format compared to a formal office or a dedicated permanent place? We’re just having a conversation… 

When we talk about libraries as platforms it can get abstract quickly. (Guilty!) These four examples illustrate the concept though. By giving up a table for a few hours a week we can greatly expand how the library enables people to interact and the questions they can ask. A simple table becomes a transformative gateway for personal insight.

Reference questions are declining but the questions amongst our communities are only becoming more complex and interpersonal. One of the best things we can do is provide that literal and figurative table for people to meet and get the help they need.

I wish I had had more time to develop this further—but I’m on the clock – so this will have to do. I just wanted to get this idea kernel out there. I’d love to hear from others hosting these pop-up boutique services. Could this be the start of a panel at ACRL 2017?

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