Does the Reference Desk Still Matter?: Assessing the Desk Paradigm at the University of Washington Libraries
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The University of Washington (UW) comprises three campuses and several off-campus facilities and is the largest comprehensive research institution in the Pacific Northwest. UW’s Seattle campus, its largest, has thirteen libraries which serve 43,000 students and 4,300 faculty and host over five million annual visits to library facilities and nine million separate visits to Libraries websites. With the increasing availability of research content online, a significant portion of UW’s faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates now privilege desktop delivery of content over physical visits to library buildings for their research. A growing shift toward remote access is similarly evident in reference services—one-fifth of questions in 2011 came in via email and chat. It is logical, then, to ask: Are librarians with advanced degrees making their most effective contribution to the scholarly community by staffing walk-up reference desks, where annual statistics show a steep decline in business? To address this question, the Reference Desk Services Task Force (hereafter “the task force”) was established in winter 2011 to assess services at the three Seattle campus libraries that still maintained stand-alone reference desks: the main research library, Suzzallo-Allen; the Odegaard Undergraduate Library; and the Engineering Library.