Posted 1:18 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021

Student checking out book at the Circulation Desk

How the location of the Reference Desk can affect the Circulation Desk

Observations and highlights from the article “The Effects of Relocating the Reference Desk on the Circulation Desk,” published in the Journal of Access Services, Vol. 18, No.3, 2021 

By Scott Pfitzinger

For many years, Murphy Library's Reference Desk was located in the middle of the main floor. Staffed by a librarian and reference student worker, it had a central location that placed it close to the printers and computers, near where students studied. 


Reference Desk in its original location in the middle of the main floor of the library

During the spring semester of 2017, the Reference Desk was moved to the end of the Circulation Desk counter. Circulation and Reference services remained separate from each other but utilized the same counter. The change was made to open up space for more computers and book displays and to take advantage of unused counterspace at the Circulation Desk. This also made it easier for students to get help, since our main services were now located in one spot. 

Reference Desk location at the same counter as the Circulation Desk

However, this experiment only lasted one semester. Sharing the counter but having two different service points turned out to be more confusing to students, who often were told, “They can help you down at that end of the counter.” Librarians at the Reference Desk often spent much of their time answering questions about computer and printer problems, so in order to decrease these types of questions and focus more on research assistance, the Reference Desk was moved again, this time to the back of the Reference Department where it still remains.

Reference Desk located at the back of the Reference department

After a couple years in this new arrangement, I began thinking about how libraries rarely move their Reference Desks, while we had done it twice. Since we track all the interactions we have at both the Reference and Circulation Desks, I decided to examine our data and see how the Circulation Desk was affected by having the Reference Desk in different locations. I looked at the number of questions we received in Circulation and what they were about. 

I found the number of questions about technology (i.e. assistance with or troubleshooting the printers and computers) stayed low at the Circulation Desk until the Reference Desk was out of the way. Once it was moved to the back of Reference, the Circulation Desk became the central service point for asking most questions, and the number of technology questions actually doubled. Our most common question at the Circulation Desk at the beginning of each academic year is “How do I print?” Throughout the rest of the year, printing questions are matched by the number of requests for checking out books. 

Students getting help from a librarian at the Reference Desk in its current location

Directional questions have always been 10-15% of our total questions at Circulation, except when the Reference Desk shared the counter. At that time, most of the directional questions went to the Reference librarian, who was located at the end of the counter, out near the middle of the library. 

General and ready-reference questions were low at the Circulation when the Reference Desk was out in the middle of the floor. After the Reference Desk was moved the first time, those kinds of questions increased at the Circulation Desk, and they stayed high even after the Reference Desk moved to the back corner. 

While the data I collected only reflects our library’s experiences, this does help provide information for other libraries who may be considering moving their Reference Desk. Its location and proximity to the Circulation Desk can change what kinds of questions will get asked at the Circulation Desk and thus changes the training needs for the students who work there.