Promoting Library Reference Services to First-Year Undergraduate Students: What Works?

Article excerpt

Most academic libraries have limited budgets for promoting their reference services. Understanding which promotions best reach current and potential patrons is crucial to budgeting funding, as well as time, effectively. This article describes a study that sought to answer three questions: (1) What percentage of first-year undergraduate students are aware Of reference services? (2) What percentage of first-years seek information from reference librarians? (3) Through which media are first-years comfortable communicating with reference librarians? To answer these questions, the researcher surveyed 237 first-years during their first semester at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Awareness varied greatly by media (i.e., in-person, chat, and telephone reference services). Approximately 35 percent of students reported already having used the UNC University Libraries' reference services. About 69 percent of students preferred face-to-face options over virtual or voice media. Strong trends related to peers' and educators' recommendations of reference services also emerged.


Reference and instructional departments at academic libraries often promote their services to undergraduate students through numerous methods. A few popular examples include distributing flyers at freshman orientation, placing links to chat reference services on the library's home page, and hanging a "Questions?" sign above the reference desk with the hope that students will come. Yet few libraries assess which efforts actually influence those students who choose to use reference services. The purpose of this study is to explore the motivations of first-year students who reported having reference interactions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). While several other factors, such as professors requiring the use of the reference desk for an assignment, proved more influential, the instruction-session scenario is the most influential factor over which librarians have direct control. Most currently available research evaluates only a single method of promotion. This study measures and compares the effectiveness of all the methods available at a single university's libraries.

In fall 2006, a 3,816 students began their first year of college at UNC. (1) The reference desk at UNC's R. B. House Undergraduate Library (generally referred to as the Undergraduate Library), primarily used by the university's first- and second-year undergraduate students, recorded 10,757 questions received during the 2006-07 school year. (2) This figure included questions asked through all means available at that library, including face-to-face, instant messenger, and telephone interactions.

In preparation for this study, UNC's reference librarians identified seven ways their services were promoted:

* Verbal publicity during library instruction sessions

* "Ask-a-Librarian" links on UNC University Libraries' webpages

* Participation in first-year orientation

* Professors requiring the use of reference services for class assignments

* Recommendations by peers

* Positive experiences using reference desks at other libraries

* Students noticing the reference desk at a UNC library

Why is it important to compare the effectiveness of all these promotional methods? There are two main reasons. First, knowing which methods of promotion truly affect students' choices to visit the reference desk can help librarians encourage students to visit the desk sooner. More specifically, when librarians understand how to reach out to freshmen, they can encourage more students to use the reference desk throughout their college careers, right from the start. Second, most academic libraries have less funding for promotion than their staff would like. Knowing which methods of promotion best reach new users--an important audience---can help librarians maximize the effect of their promotional dollars. …