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Retooling Reference for Relevant Service @ Dallas Public Library

Dallas Public Library

Innovation Summary

Dallas Public Library’s Point-of-Service reference model utilizes new technologies to take services to the public where they are. The reference model offers convenience to library users, and it also removes the “reference desk barrier” for hesitant users, utilizes staff time efficiently, and contributes to a safer library environment.

Problem Statement

The requirements of library customers once they come into our buildings have shifted: with new technologies, they can renew, request and check out materials themselves from anywhere. With the increase in the use of technology for communication, many customers are hesitant to approach library staff for help, but still need personalized assistance. Customers need help finding where materials are located or need reference and readers’ advisory assistance. These functions can best be performed without staff being stationed at reference desks. Also, with smaller staff sizes and blended job descriptions, Dallas Public Library needed to find a way to serve their customers more effectively while accomplishing tasks on the public service floor. Librarians now shelve materials, perform collection management duties, and check on security and safety issues during the time they were traditionally scheduled at the stationary reference desk. Dallas Public Library recently introduced self-check units at the branches, and staff needed to be physically available to help customers with that new technology. To more effectively serve customers with all of these changes, a fresh, 21st-century customer service method needed to be developed that would allow staff to be available without the confines of being behind a reference desk. Once a new reference service model was identified, technology, staff training, and customer education would be necessary.


Library branches were identified as test sites for a new point-of-service model, all of which involved librarians moving away from the reference desk. At these sites, variations of the model were used: some locations simply moved their computer workstations on the outside of the reference desk in order to work side-by-side with the customers; other locations moved computer workstations out to the stacks around the public area; and others used a combination of workstations in the stacks with mobile technology. In the most extreme, one site physically removed its reference desk from the building and librarians assisted customers using iPods with the Dallas Public Library app. We began to call this model “Roving Reference.” While the various models were being tested, a committee was formed of staff from the test locations and an Administrator. The committee investigated available literature, formulated a training plan (including a training PowerPoint presentation), and investigated available technologies. General discussions began at staff meetings, and more specific training was held for staff at all levels. Branch managers were asked to formulate plans for their locations indicating how they would repurpose reference desks, position work stations in the stacks, and rework reference schedules. The plans were to reflect the physical lay out of their buildings, the needs of the community, and staff strengths. iPods were purchased for each unit, and the committee held hands-on training for staff. In tandem, Dallas Public Library scheduled several sessions of Black Belt Librarian training for staff with Warren Graham, teaching intentional awareness of the library, where people are, what they are doing at all times. These principles were incorporated into Roving Reference.


One year into using Roving Reference, we have met all of the expected challenges, but we gained some unexpected advantages as well. Expectedly, librarians are able to help customers on the public service floor at the customers’ point of need. Reference staff is more versatile, not being tied to a reference desk to wait for a customer to approach. Being mobile, library staff is available to assist customers with our new self-check technology, thus easing the transition. As we planned, increased visibility of librarians in the public service areas has decreased security and behavioral issues. Staff can identify and correct safety concerns more proactively. Moving into Roving Reference in our branches has had some unexpected benefits. Using mobile technology helped young customers realize that libraries are relevant and are meeting the advances of the 21st century. Also, using the iPods and the Dallas Public Library app gave library staff the opportunity to promote our app to customers and to demonstrate its various features. Lastly, using the iPods has helped staff become more comfortable with several new technologies that Dallas Public Library has introduced in the last year. Roving Reference at Dallas Public Library is progressing and progressive: by allowing each branch manager to develop a plan that fits their buildings and the needs of their communities, library administration has opened channels of communication among the staff that are practicing this method. Roving Reference models are constantly evolving and changing to fit staffing levels, activity levels and use patterns. The next step in the progression is to adapt the model for use at our Central library.