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Roving Reference is reference conducted outside of the reference desk. The idea here is to remove barriers between staff and patrons, and to lend assistance where patrons need it rather than having them come to a desk.
Roving Reference can be implemented in a number of ways, and to a number of degrees:
- Supplemental to an reference desk and desk schedule. In this model there would still be a manned information desk, but there would also be roving librarians addressing patron's needs on the floor. This roving can either be done through a roving schedule or by instructing library staff on the floor to be on the look-out for patrons who need assistance.
- As a replacement for, or a partial replacement for, a reference desk and desk schedule. In this model, the majority of reference is carried out by roving staff, with the reference desk either being replaced entirely or having its role minimized. Library staff would be in communication with other staff by the means of headsets or other portable communication devices, and might have access to the catalogue by similar means.
There are several suggested advantages to roving reference over the reference desk. It has been suggested that being able to find patrons where they are having a problem reduces the possibility of miscommunication. In addition, it is arguable that librarians are more approachable when outside the desk. Roving reference could also have advantages when it comes to having to direct a patron to another department. Rather than a patron being sent from desk to desk, a roving librarian could contact another department or ask a librarian from another department to come and assist the patron.
There are several suggested disadvantages to roving reference as compared to the reference desk. It has been suggested that having an easily identifiable focal point for the dissemination of information can reduce confusion for a patron looking for help. In addition, the reference desk often acts as a collection of quick-reference items such as dictionaries, telephone directories, local maps, and forms. Not only are these often needed by a reference librarian to answer questions that a patron may have, but they are often requested by patrons, and having them at a central location makes them easier to find. There are also suggestions that many patrons view the library as a different customer service environment to a retail location such as a bookstore. As such, they may not want to be approached while browsing, preferring to ask for help when they need it.
The question of roving reference is an ongoing concern in public libraries, with some librarians embracing it as an expansion of reference services and others expressing concerns about its effectiveness and its effect on the quality of service the library can deliver.