Best Reference Practices are Not Observed in Telephone Ready Reference Services


  • Julie McKenna Regina Public Library



A review of:
Agosto, Denise A. and Holly Anderton. “Whatever Happened to ‘Always Cite the Source?’” Reference & User Services Quarterly 47.1 (2007): 44-54.

Objective – To study source citing practice in telephone reference service in large public libraries in the United States and Canada.

Design – Field simulation (unobtrusive testing).

Setting – Large public libraries in the United States and Canada.

Subjects – Telephone reference staff of the 25 largest public libraries in the United States and Canada.

Methods – The 2005 World Book Almanac was used to select the 25 largest (in terms of population served) public libraries in Canada and the United States. Each system’s Web site was checked to locate the telephone number for reference service. For some systems it was necessary to call the general telephone number for the main library or the first branch listed on the Web site.

Five ready reference test questions were developed from a list of questions that students in a graduate library and information science course had previously asked of public library telephone reference services. The selected questions in the order that they were asked were:
1. Can you tell me when Valentine’s Day is?
2. Who is the current governor/premier (of the state/province where the library is located)?
3. What is the population of Montana?
4. In which state is the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) located?
5. What is the French word for “chiropractor”?

The authors called each of the 25 libraries during five consecutive weeks at different times of the business day. Each week, one question was asked; once an answer was received, no clarification was requested and the call was ended. The study reports the results of 125 reference transactions.

For this study, the following definitions were used to assess complete citation for each type of information resource:
• For a Web site – the complete URL (title and sponsor of the site not required).
• For a digital database – the database title and the title and year of the specific item (author, publisher, page number not required).
• For a print resource – the title and year (author, edition, page number, publisher and place of publication not required).

Each reference transaction was noted to record whether the answer was correct and to define the nature of source citing that occurred. Other notes were kept to describe other respondent behaviors and attitudes demonstrated during the transaction.

Main Results – 93.6% of the answers to the 125 reference questions were correct. Complete citations were provided seven times (5.6%) and partial citations were provided an additional thirty-one times (24.8%). In 68% of the 125 transactions, no source citation information was provided.

There was a corresponding relationship between the difficulty of the reference question and the respondent’s provision of any citation source (either a complete or incomplete citation source). Sources were generally not provided for simple questions even though the practice of citing is expected for all levels of questions. The practice of citing in order to reveal the path to the answer so that the user may become independent in the future was not observed.

In addition, five “negative closure” techniques were employed by respondents. These included unmonitored referral; immediate referral away from the service; articulating that the encounter would not be successful at the start; shutting down the transaction either by tone of voice or by use of phrase that precluded any further interaction with the user; or claiming that the information did not exist or was not available.

A reliance on digital formats rather than print sources was found.

Conclusion – The accuracy rate of the answers to the questions was very high (93.6%), but other aspects of the service were considered to be less than satisfactory. The Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) Guidelines, considered the best practices for reference service, were not observed and in particular, the source citation rule was not followed.


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Author Biography

Julie McKenna, Regina Public Library

Julie McKenna Deput Library Director, Regina Public Library Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada




How to Cite

McKenna, J. (2008). Best Reference Practices are Not Observed in Telephone Ready Reference Services. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 3(2), 32–34.



Evidence Summaries