Association of College & Research Libraries

Reference roving at Boston College

By Adeane Bregman and Barbara Mento Adeane Bregman and Barbara Mento are reference librarians/bibliographers at Boston College

The explosion of electronic resources has forced our library and many others to review traditional methods of providing reference services. Boston College (BC) created the “ref- erence rover” to address patrons’ needs brought about by this explosion. The reference rover is a staff member who circulates among the vari- ous electronic resources to offer assistance at the point of use. Patrons appreciate the indi- vidualized instruction available when they need it and are left with a sense of accomplishment. Helping patrons at the point of use gives li- brarians a means of keeping up to date on the new resources and also provides an idea of how patrons deal with the technology. At the O’Neill Library we found reference roving to be not only an effective way to address user needs, but also a way to manage the stressful impact of electronic information resources on the delivery of reference services.


The idea of librarians asking patrons if they needed help as opposed to patrons asking librarians came as a result of the Reference Department’s discussions on the future of reference service at BC. The department held a day-long retreat to plan for the various changes it faced at that time which included:

• introducing a new online library catalog, changing from a GEAC to a NOTIS system;

• upgrading of the MultiPlatter system from four stand-alone workstations to a ten-station LAN (local area network) with access to six different CD-ROM databases;

• installing two UMI databases (ABI Inform and Dissertation Abstracts) at a standalone workstation near four Infotrac workstations and next to the Oxford English Dictionary workstation;

• relocating the workstation used for Dow Jones News Retrieval and BRS After Dark from the reference desk to a location some 10 feet away;

• upgrading the OCLC terminal.

The O’Neill Library supports over 50 public workstations in the Electronic Information Area. The resources are accessible to a student body of approximately 14,000 and a faculty of over 700. In addition, as a member of the Boston Library Consortium our resources are shared by 11 area libraries, many area businesses, and the community at large. The impending changes made us understandably concerned about the impact of the proliferation of electronic resources on both an already stressed staff and our patrons who had to deal with these changes too.

We anticipated that our patrons would need the most help in differentiating between the various electronic information systems and learning the skills of searching each one. We had already perceived patrons’ confusion over which system to use and which commands and features, such as the truncation symbol, were appropriate for each.

Traditionally we had staffed the reference desk 92 hours a week and waited for patrons to request our assistance. Some inquiries were answered at the desk, but questions involving search strategies and computer skills required that the member of the reference staff leave the desk to help the patron at the workstation, sometimes for extended periods of time.

Reference roving

In light of all the proposed changes and the increase in the number and variety of worksta- tions, the Reference Department discussed the impact of spending more time away from the reference desk. After brainstorming for possible solutions to this problem, we decided that li- brarians and staff should “rove” around the area where the electronic resources were located to assist patrons as they needed help and instruc- tion.

It was hoped that reference roving would reduce stress for both staff at the reference desk and for patrons at workstations by providing immediate assistance and instruction.

Reference roving began in the fall of 1989 after orientation sessions for new students and introductory sessions to our new NOUS online catalog, QUEST, were completed. The new roving service consisted of 20 one- hour shifts (Monday through Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.), added to our regular schedule. Librarians and staff from circulation, cataloging, and the special campus librar- ies asked to be included in the reference roving schedule. Outside staff viewed roving as an opportunity to increase their knowledge of our elec- tronic resources, while refer- ence staff benefited from the additional help.

To determine the impact on patrons and to evaluate the new service, two surveys were designed. One survey was developed to determine what type of assistance patrons required most often from our rovers and the other to establish a profile of our users.

First survey summary

The first was a statistical survey designed to record the number of times a user needed technical assistance (i.e., use of command language and function keys, machine problems) and conceptual assistance (i.e., search strategies, determining the appropriate system, explanation of a thesaurus). Statistics were collected by rovers over an eight-week period and provided data on approximately 1,093 interactions. The following areas of user assistance are listed in order of frequency:

Reference rovers sport these buttons while roving. Because their visibility has increased, patrons now recognize and stop them even when they aren’t wearing their buttons.

Photo credit: Gary Gilbert

• search strategies;

• mechanical problems (machine freezes, inadequate supply of paper and ink, etc.);

• search mechanics (appropriate commands, how to print, etc.);

• overall introduction to the system;

• screen interpretations;

• appropriate resource choice (patron using the wrong system).

We found that about three-fourths of the rover interactions lasted less than five minutes. Guiding our users to the right system or strategy at the beginning of the search process saved time because reference staff aren’t running between the reference desk and the workstations. As a result the patron’s approach is more efficient from the outset.

Second survey summary

The goal of the second sur- vey was to provide a profile of our users. To get a broad sampling, 70 patrons were randomly interviewed during various rover shifts. Our pro- file indicated that 90% of our electronic information users had some computer experi- ence; 71% had searched the system they were using at least once before; and 64% had re- ceived some sort of assistance. Of those users who had re- ceived assistance, 98% said they found the assistance use- ful. Overall, 90% of the users said they found the information they needed. This high success rate has led to greater user satisfaction and reduced demands on the staff.

As a result of these surveys, the roving reference service was expanded two hours each day, extending coverage from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and steps were taken to address the areas where patrons needed the most assistance. The department scheduled additional tours and demonstrations at the beginning of each semester to explain the various systems. Signs listing the available databases were placed above each workstation. Selected keys on the workstation keyboards were either disabled or reprogrammed to resolve some mechanical problems. Student library assistants were asked to monitor the printers on a regular basis and to check for adequate paper and ink supplies.

Since the initiation of reference roving, three new dial-in services (Lexis/Nexis/Medis, Dialog/ Classmate, and Univnet), a Latin American wire service, and two CD-ROM databases (.Million Dollar Directory and National Newspaper Index on Infotraè) have been added. Three Wilson databases (Humanities, Social Sciences, and General Science Indexes) were mounted on our NOTIS system and the UMI databases were moved onto our MultiPlatter network, along with PAIS and GPO. Having the roving service already in place, we were able to effectively introduce the new systems to our patrons.


A poll of the reference staff a year later indicates that our staff unanimously think reference roving is worthwhile and should be continued. It makes staff more accessible and allows time for in-depth help on an individual basis. Roving provides the opportunity for a pro-active approach and a first-hand view of how patrons use electronic resources. It also helps relieve the stress felt at the reference desk by allowing referrals to the reference rovers.

Several recent articles, including Charles A. Bunge’s “CD-ROM Stress” (LibraryJournal, April 15, 1991), emphasized that this proliferation of electronic resources has led to the rise of technostress in reference departments. Reference roving at Boston College’s O’Neill Library has proved to be a successful approach for dealing with these problems and meeting our patrons’ needs. ■

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