Reference Librarians use Electronic Sources Six Times More than Print Sources to Answer Patrons’ Questions

Lorie Andrea Kloda


A review of:

Bradford, Jane T., Barbara Costello, and Robert Lenholt. “Reference Service in the Digital Age: An Analysis of Sources Used to Answer Reference Questions.” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 31.3 (May 2005): 263-72.

Objective – To test the hypothesis that electronic sources are used by librarians more often than print sources to answer questions at the reference desk.

Design – Use study.

Setting – Small, private university in the United States.

Subjects – Five full-time and two part-time librarians working at the reference desk for four months (two months in the fall of 2002, and two months in the spring of 2003).

Methods – The study recorded every question asked by library patrons during the two study periods, with the exception of non-library related directional questions and hardware problems. For each question recorded, librarians, while working solo at the reference desk, paraphrased the question and recorded the source(s) used to answer each question. Although questions were recorded regardless of source – in person, via email, or by telephone – the medium in which each question was asked and answered was not recorded. For the first half of the study period (fall 2002 semester), librarians kept manual records that were subsequently transcribed into a spreadsheet by a student assistant. In the second half of the study period (spring 2003 semester), the librarians entered data directly into a spreadsheet. The study’s data monitor (who was also a study participant) was responsible for ensuring the integrity of the data and for assigning a category to each source. The source category ‘librarian’ was problematic in that it was unclear whether or not the actual source of the answer was the librarian or a source located by the librarian. After the first half of the study, the procedure was changed to require that a reference librarian was to label a source used to answer a question as ‘librarian’ only if the answer came from a librarian’s own knowledge, and if it did not require consultation of an outside source. Categories were generated on the fly, as the data monitor reviewed the recorded questions and sources. By the end of the study, 23 categories had emerged. While all sources for answers were categorized, questions themselves were not. During the second part of the study, the gender of the patron asking the question at the reference desk was also recorded.

Main results –The results for the fall 2002 and spring 2003 semesters were similar. For the entire study period, librarians used a total of 3,487 sources to answer 2,491 questions. Sources fell into 23 different categories. The top 5 categories used to answer reference questions were databases (23.92%), librarians (23.6%), library catalogue (15.03%), internal Web page (12.27%), and reference books (9.38%). The top five categories accounted for 84.2% of all sources used. For 75% of the questions, librarians referred to a single source for an answer. Almost 60% of the sources used to answer questions were electronic. Of the internal Web pages used to answer questions, the library’s online journal title listings accounted for 76%. Reference books were used to answer questions in less than 10% of cases. Less than 2% of the library’s print reference collection (173 of 9,587 titles) was consulted to answer reference questions during the study period. The approximate 60:40 ratio of questions asked by female to male patrons corresponded to the university’s student body ratio.

Conclusion – The results of this study confirm the researchers’ hypothesis that librarians use electronic sources with greater frequency than they use print sources to answer patrons’ reference questions. The surprising finding in this study is the proportion (approximately one quarter) of reference questions answered by the librarians themselves, without the need to consult an outside source, either print or electronic. The study suggests that a large proportion of the reference collection goes unused in answering patrons’ questions and that librarians often answer a question using only a single a source of information. A reshelving study analyzing use of the reference collection is underway to supplement the results of the current study.

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