Thursday, May 07, 2009

Management by Wandering Around: Reference Rovering and Quality Reference Service

Management by Wandering Around: Reference Rovering and Quality Reference Service

Michael Lorenzen

(This article originally appeared in The Reference Librarian,1997 (no. 59), 51-57.)

Abstract: Reference rovering is a method for eliminating the barrier of the reference desk which is between the librarian and the patron. This concept very closely parallels the business concept of Management By Wandering Around (MBWA). This paper looks at the literature examining the history and techniques of both MBWA and reference rovering. The techniques for how to conduct reference rovering are explored. Both the advantages and disadvantages of reference rovering are examined.


The reference desk is a location that allows for the librarian to interact with patrons in ways that help the patron locate information. Despite the usefulness of the reference desk, it can also become a barrier. Not all patrons who need help locating information will ask for it. Some patrons will be afraid to ask for help. Others will not realize that they need to ask for help. The librarian working behind a reference desk may not always notice when a patron who has not approached the desk needs help.

The business world has similar problems. Managers can have difficulty becoming aware of problems in their areas of responsibility unless other employees or customers point out problems to them. In the last several decades, a business solution to this has emerged. The concept of Management by Wandering Around has gotten managers out of the office and onto the floor making contact with employees and customers. Some librarians have responded similarly by leaving the reference desk behind to interact proactively with patrons by acting as reference rovers. Management by Wandering Around and reference rovering are very similar and an examination of both can prove useful to librarians engaged in reference work.

Literature Review

Management by Wandering Around was developed by executives at Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s (Trueman, 1991). It became popularized by a book written by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in the early 1980s. The two discovered that companies that had top managers engaged in interacting with employees and customers were more successful than those with isolated management. The two believed that this success was due to leadership that "wandered" outside the executive suite. Rather than micro-manage employees, Management by Wandering Around allowed for informal communication and a decrease in bureaucratic lines of communication. It also allowed for managers to communicate organizational values and management philosophy at a personal level (Peters and Waters, 1982).

The key to Management by Wandering Around is communication between managers and employees. The concept allows a manager to be "walking around with (his or her) eyes open asking questions like crazy and trying to understand what the employees are doing" (Lavenson, 1976). A Vice-President of Hewlett-Packard described Management by Wandering Around as "the business of staying in touch with the territory all the time." This is done by "being accessible and approachable" (McPherson, 1991). In short, a Management by Wandering Around program "gets the manager out of his or her office and onto the floor making contact with employees" (Amsbary and Staples, 1991).

Amsbary and Staples did a case study of a Management by Wandering Around at a hospital. They found that a Management by Wandering Around program was providing for improved communication between nurses and administrators. They also found that despite the program's success many administrators did not know how to behave while "wandering" due to the ambiguous nature of Management by Wandering Around. Other fields that have explored Management by Wandering Around include the ministry (Bilmer, 1984) and education (Matula, 1984).

Reference rovering probably has been around in some form or another since the beginning of reference service. However, as a separate philosophy of reference, it has received little attention in library literature. Jennii Ramirez wrote an article on it based on her experiences at Diablo Valley College. She listed six benefits to reference rovering including letting patrons know that it is OK not to know how to use the library, getting patrons help at the point of instruction so they will not lose their places at computers, eliminating the reference desk separating patrons from the librarian, instructing patrons so they learn from a hands-on approach, teaching one-on-one which is superior to group bibliographic instruction, and letting other patrons benefit from public conversations between a librarian and another patron. Ramirez summed up her article by writing, "Reference rovering, in fact, is better than working from a reference desk in some respects. The amount of contact with patrons is greater when rovering. Not only does the rover's offer of assistance in itself provide an opportunity to become more comfortable in interpersonal communication with patrons, but the offer is often appreciated and accepted" (Ramirez, 1994).

Techniques of Reference Rovering

Reference rovering needs to follow a modified version of Management by Wandering Around if it is to have maximum effectiveness. To be successful, the librarian must get out from behind the reference desk and onto the floor making contact with patrons. The librarian must walk around with eyes open asking questions in an attempt to stay in touch with patrons.

Each reference unit must decide if reference rovering will be done as part of regular reference desk coverage or whether it will be a separate scheduled activity of librarians. If the decision is made to include rovering as part of regular reference coverage, several other questions must be addressed. How much time will each librarian spend rovering while at the reference desk? Will there always be at least one librarian at the reference desk despite rovering activity? If the decision is to schedule separate rovering time, the times when reference rovering will be the most beneficial must be identified.

One problem that has been identified with Management by Wandering Around is that managers do not know how to "wander" (Amsbary and Staples, 1991). It is thus reasonable to assume that many librarians do not know how to "rove." The easiest way to rove is to wander around the reference areas paying particular attention to patrons who appear confused or who the librarian knows from prior interactions needs extra help or are working on a tough research question. Another thing to notice is if patrons are not doing research in the most efficient manner. A patron who is at record 13 of 2013 on a research database certainly needs some rover intervention.

After identifying patrons in need of help, the librarian must strike up a conversation with the patron. The choice of the initial question is particularly important. Asking "How is your research going?" is a good way to enter into the reference interview. Another good opening line is, "Wow, that sure is an interesting topic!" if the librarian can see a topic on a computer screen, although the librarian should be careful not to do this if the patron is researching a potentially embarrassing topic. A good follow-up rover question is, "How is your progress?" on whatever topic the librarian previously helped the patron research.

Patrons can be sensitive about appearing dumb. This is why many of them do not go to the reference desk in the first place. It is important not to phrase questions as if the patron needs help. Many patrons will immediately get defensive. Another point to remember is that some patrons do not want to be approached. If the librarian feels the patron is uneasy with being disturbed, the librarian needs to end politely the rover encounter. Librarians should try to make it appear as though they are not violating the privacy or personal space of the patron.

Librarians engaged in rovering should always wear badges that identify the rover as a librarian. Patrons may not always know that the stranger coming up to them asking questions about their research is a librarian. Patrons may grow suspicious and worry about the intent of the rover. It is not good for patrons to think that rovers are trying to "pick them up."

The reference desk itself may need to be changed. If rovering is a part of the duties of librarians scheduled to the reference desk, the design of the desk will need to reflect this. Sit-down reference desks inhibit the rovering activities of librarians. A reference desk with high stools designed more as an open counter area allows for better rovering interaction. The reference area itself may need some redesign to facilitate rovering. Objects such as shelving, tables, and computers should be in a line of sight from the reference desk. Further, the reference area should be as open as possible to allow librarians who are rovering the best view of patron activity.

Finally, it is very important that librarians who are rovering are relaxed and friendly. Patrons approached by disinterested or untactful librarians are not going to feel comfortable. Rovering by uninterested or unfriendly librarians will damage the reputation of a library.

Benefits of Reference Rovering

There are many benefits to reference rovering. Several of these were first identified by Ramirez. The biggest benefit of reference rovering is that it eliminates the barrier of the desk. The librarian is free to go to the patrons and help them as it is needed. The librarian is more alert to patron needs and the patron sees the librarian as being friendly and helpful because the librarian sought out the patron.

Since the librarian is out on the floor, problems are discovered faster. Inevitably, new reference tools such as computers can cause unforeseen problems for patrons that may take weeks or longer for the library staff to discover. A rover will pick up on these problems much faster. Additionally, other problems, such as a leaky roof in the far corner of the reference area, may be discovered faster as well.

Reference desk traffic should diminish. As librarians are rovering, many of the questions that may have came to the reference desk will never get there because the patron was identified and helped by a rover. Further, rovers will be able to check up on patrons who were helped at the reference desk and cut down on the number of repeat visits.

Rovering allows patrons to feel more comfortable with their lack of knowledge of how to do research. "Since the...only reason for circulating is to offer assistance, this indicates to patrons that they are not expected to know how to use the resources. That signal--that it is okay not to know and therefore it is okay to get help--is reassuring to patrons" (Ramirez, 1994).

Another benefit of rovering is that patrons are taught at the point of use. This is a big benefit to patrons who may be reluctant to leave a heavily-used tool to ask for help at the reference desk. This is particularly true for patrons using computer indexes that have large lines of patrons waiting to use the tool. As a rover will help a patron use a computer more efficiently, this should also allow the tool to become available for other patrons sooner.

Reference rovering allows for hands-on, individualized instruction. As the librarian will see exactly what the patron needs in the way of instruction, the librarian can focus on those areas. This is more efficient for the individual patron than bibliographic instruction, because only the individual's needs are addressed.

Finally, others can benefit from hearing a rover have an instruction session with a patron. "While helping one patron, others may overhear the discussion and learn along with the 'official' trainee...Observing that the rover provides nonjudgemental, friendly assistance may embolden them to ask for help" (Ramirez, 1994). The drawback to this however is that patron privacy may be compromised.

Disadvantages of Reference Rovering

There are several disadvantages to reference rovering as well. The first is staffing. If rovering is a separately scheduled activity for librarians, supervisors will have difficulty finding librarians to cover both the reference desk and rovering except at the best-staffed libraries. If rovering is a part of regular reference desk activity, care will have to be taken to make sure an adequate number of librarians are at the reference desk. It may prove impossible to rove at peak times. After all, who is going to answer the phone if everyone is out in the reference stacks looking for confused patrons?

Reference rovering will lead to a noisier reference area. As rovers and patrons interact, their conversations will be quite noticeable. Patrons who expect the library to be a quiet area will be disturbed by the noise. Further, they may become annoyed at the librarian causing the noise when they feel the librarian should be suppressing it.

Another problem that may develop with reference rovering is a few patrons dominating too much of the rover's time. It will be easy for the rover to lose track of time when engaged with helping a patron to the detriment of other patrons waiting to be "discovered" by the rover. Further, some patrons may begin to monopolize too much of the rover's time. These same patrons may refuse to learn how to do difficult research if they believe the rover will help them do it every time they come in the library.


Management by Wandering Around and reference rovering are closely related concepts that do the same thing. They both make the practitioner more aware of those they work with and serve. Barriers such as offices and reference desks are eliminated. As a philosophy of reference, reference rovering gets the librarian back to the basic concept of reference service: meeting the needs of the patron. An examination of business literature reveals how effective Management by Wandering Around has proven to be in the last several decades. Rovering has many benefits for librarians and patrons including the elimination of the barrier of the reference desk and more individualized instruction when and where it is needed. There are drawbacks as well including the difficulty in staffing reference desks. However, reference rovering has much to recommend it and libraries would certainly benefit from implementing it in some form.


Amsbary, Jonathan H. and Patricia J. Staples (1991), "Improving Administrator/Nurse Communication: A Case Study of Management by Wandering Around," Journal of Business Communication 28 (Spring), 101-12.

Beckman, J. Daniel (1991), "Tools for Staying Ahead in the Nineties," Healthcare Forum 34 (May/June), 84-90.

Bers, Trudy H. (1985), "Planetary Leadership: A Presentation in the Peripatetic Method of Effecting Change in a College--A Case Study in Management by Wandering Around," Planning For Higher Education 13, 4-9.

Bilmer, Richard (1984), "Ministry by Wandering Around!" Lutheran Education 119 (January/February), 160-1.

Lavenson, J.H. (1976), "How to Earn an MBWA Degree," Vital Speeches 42, 410-2.

McPherson, Joseph (1984), "Inspiring Creativity While 'Wandering Around'," 39 (April), 77.

Matula, Jospeh J. (1984), "Learning to Lead by Strolling Around," Executive Educator 6 (July), 20.

Peters, Thomas J. and Robert H. Waterman Jr. (1982), In Search of Excellence: Lessons From America's Best Run Companies. New York: Harper and Row.

Ramirez, Jennii L. (1994), "Reference Rover: The Hesitant Patron's Best Friend," College & Research Libraries News 55 (June), 354-57.

Trueman, Wendy (1991), "CEO Isolation and How to Fight It," Canadian Business 64 (July), 28-32.

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