Libraries’ new roving reference serves students

By Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries

Ask-me-80PULLMAN, Wash. – A new program at Washington State University’s Holland and Terrell Libraries brings the traditional reference desk to students instead of the other way around.

The roving reference service runs 11 a.m.-2 p.m. every Tuesday and Wednesday. Library reference staff carrying tablet PCs circulate between book stacks, study areas and cubicles to help students answer questions wherever they are.

“Roving will especially target early-career students who are unfamiliar with the libraries’ resources and layout,” said Erin Hvizdak, WSU Libraries reference and instruction librarian.

“So many of the questions we answer are about how to look up and find books,” she said. “And even when we provide directions, students will tell us it took them 30 minutes or more to find what they were looking for. This will allow us to help them become geographically comfortable with the libraries.”

Increasing interaction

Fredrick Hardyway and Erin Hvizdak, standing, discuss a new roving reference service with WSU students in Holland Library. (Photo by Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries)

Roving reference programs are not new. Academic libraries have adopted the programs since the mid-1990s to address declining student use of reference desks, according to WSU history graduate student Fredrick Hardyway. He is working with Hvizdak on WSU’s roving reference service and researched the topic during the spring and summer.

Declining visits to the reference desk do not mean students have fewer questions for librarians, he found: “Students still needed help and still did not understand how to use library resources but – as many of the articles researched found – students would not go to the reference desk for help.”

In general, roving reference services that set out to check on students wherever they are increase interaction with librarians and make it easier for students to ask a broader variety of questions.

“In all of the cases examined, students who used the service felt better connected and more relaxed with less anxiety when using roving reference librarian services than approaching the reference desk,” Hardyway said. “In turn, most cases saw an increase in reference desk activity after the implementation of roving reference librarians.”

Resources, relationships, retention

Hvizdak also sees the potential for closer connections with students through the service. Questions about a specific title “can lead the way to larger conversations about their research and the wide array of resources the libraries have to offer,” she said.

“Helping students at the ‘point of need’ can help develop relationships with students and get them comfortable with library staff, which increases the likelihood that they will come back to us again –  hopefully leading to an improved academic experience and increased retention,” she said.


Erin Hvizdak, WSU Libraries, 509-335-9514,
Fredrick Hardyway, WSU history graduate student, 509-335-5139,
Nella Letizia, WSU Libraries communications, 509-335-6744,