Enhancing the Quality of Reference Services for the 21st Century

By Whitlatch, Jo Bell | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

Enhancing the Quality of Reference Services for the 21st Century


Whitlatch, Jo Bell, Reference & User Services Quarterly


When we think of quality reference services today, we must consider services that focus on the customer, that get the service right the first time, and that continuously improve services we offer. As we prepare to enter the 21st century, in contrast to librarians 100 years ago, service is an important aspect of our field. At the beginning of the 20th century, collection growth and preservation were the primary goals. Today, we discuss enhancing access rather than developing comprehensive collections and often describe ourselves as a service-oriented profession.

Research conducted over the past several decades reveals that we need to improve the quality of service, both in the quality of the answers provided and librarian behaviors toward users. Research findings indicate that we all too frequently provide "half-right" reference service. A great challenge for reference librarians will be to develop effective and practical methods of substantially improving reference service in all of our libraries. These improvements may require a change in philosophy as well. In a Library Journal editorial (May 15, 1998; p.6) John Berry argues that reference librarians must abandon their old philosophy of merely helping people locate an information source, that is, providing "neutral" or objective service. Instead, librarians must analyze, interpret, and evaluate information sources. Berry notes that not only must we abandon our old philosophies, but we must also acquire new levels of expertise and the courage to take risks common to other professions. We must be willing to deliver value through a combination of expert evaluation and advice.

I believe that the key to adding more expert evaluation and advice will be through continuous evaluation of the quality of reference processes and sources. We must add value for users both through more effective evaluation of information sources and by incorporating a stronger focus on evaluation into the reference process. As RUSA president, I welcome the opportunity to explore, through the 1999 President's Program and this column in Reference and User Services Quarterly, how this might be accomplished. In this issue, I will explore adding value for users through the systems that describe our information sources. In the next column I will address adding value through assessing the reference process.

Today's information technology provides us with exciting opportunities to add additional value for library users through more effective evaluation of sources. Library online catalogs and periodical indexing/abstracting systems still reflect the old philosophy of librarianship. Records for books and periodical articles still remain much as they were in printed card catalogs and periodical indexes/abstracts. These records for books, periodical articles, and other media were limited to simple and short descriptions, in part because of the space and printing costs involved in creating and maintaining more elaborate records.

Automation of these records proceeded as first stages of automation usually do--our printed descriptions became electronic descriptions of books and periodical articles in the first generation of automated online catalogs and CD-ROM indexes. In the second generation of automated catalogs and indexes we have added enriched records: table of contents or summaries for books and abstracts for almost all periodical articles.

We have yet to move into the third, higher stage of automation where the product becomes transformed by using the full potential of the new technology.

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Enhancing the Quality of Reference Services for the 21st Century
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