Measuring Service Quality in Special Libraries: Lessons from Service Marketing

Article excerpt

Introduction

The diverse avenues to information that are rapidly emerging challenge the role and very survival of special libraries. Information-seekers who once turned to their corporate or agency library for help may now be prompted to use electronic or commercial document delivery services, to purchase individualized access rights in the forms of database subscriptions or purchased books, or to accept abbreviated abstracts instead of retrieving full-text articles. Not only are libraries competing for customers within this changing information delivery marketplace, they are re-examining their management, their manner of justifying budget, and their very existence. To compete effectively and survive, special libraries may profit by using the managerial and marketing tools and approaches developed in business, such as total quality management (TQM).[1] TQM emphasizes providing quality services as perceived from the customer's point of view, not the management point of view. Heavily used in Japan, TQM has been adopted in manufacturing and service industries in the United States over the last 20 years. Where quality considerations have long been a concern of information professionals, TQM has not been widely applied in libraries.[2]

A major stumbling block to implementing TQM in special libraries is the lack of an adequate, transferable instrument for assessing service quality from a customer's point of view. Lyon has issued a call for standardized instruments oriented to specialized reference services.[3] Most questionnaires are developed for a specific study with no attempts to devise a more generic instrument. It is especially important that such an instrument provide adequate feedback to allow libraries to determine the criteria that library users value about information services. Specific feedback allows libraries to modify services to meet the customers' criteria. Developing an instrument is costly and perhaps unnecessary if instruments already exist which are appropriate for, or can be adapted for, special libraries.

This paper surveys the marketing literature to identify models and instruments that have been used in service industries to measure service quality and assesses their applicability to special libraries. It marks the first stage of a project funded by the Special Libraries Association to develop an instrument for assessing service quality in special libraries. Research in a range of service industries has pointed to numerous common factors characterizing all types of service industries. As service organizations, special libraries and information centers can benefit from models and techniques developed and widely used in service industries. The instrument finally suggested in the project may provide a basis for comparing special library performance with the performance of other service industries and will help individual libraries to implement TQM and thus become more competitive.

Characteristics of Services

Services differ from goods in several ways that make judging service quality difficult. A good is a tangible object. A service is a performance or an act and thus is intangible. Within product lines, goods have great consistency and are often produced to meet certain standards or guidelines. Dependent on the interaction between client and service provider, services, even of the same type, are subject to greater variation than goods. With goods, production is separate from consumption. The customer is present only at the final stage. With services, the production and consumption stages are often inseparable. As a result, the client is often present throughout the service encounter. Services, then, are characterized by intangibility, heterogeneity, and inseparability of production and consumption.[4]

Information services are perhaps among the most difficult to measure in terms of both customer satisfaction and service quality because of the perceptual overlap between information as a commodity and information as a process. …