Electronic Mail Reference Services in the Public Library

By Garnsey, Beth A.; Powell, Ronald R. | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview
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Electronic Mail Reference Services in the Public Library


Garnsey, Beth A., Powell, Ronald R., Reference & User Services Quarterly


Although more and more libraries are offering electronic mail reference services, little information about these services has been reported. We conducted an exploratory survey to examine public library e-mail reference services and the patrons who use them. Data collection techniques included a questionnaire mailed to participating libraries and a Web-based questionnaire completed by library patrons. Data gathered included: (1) information on the provision and administration of e-mail reference services provided by public libraries across the United States; (2) characteristics of public library e-mail reference patrons and their satisfaction with the service they received; and (3) classification of e-mail reference questions received by public libraries. Characteristics of the e-mail reference services varied considerably, but the patrons, citing ease and convenience as the major reasons for using such services, were mostly satisfied with what they received.

Reference assistance has been an important service provided by the American public library for more than a century. Since 1876, when Samuel Green's benchmark article "Personal Relations between Librarians and Readers" was published, reference services have undergone many changes, often in response to new technologies.[1] One of the most recent technological changes, Internet access, is revolutionizing library reference services. In 1994, only 20.9 percent of public library systems had some type of Internet connectivity.[2] The "1998 National Survey of Public Library Outlet Internet Connectivity: Final Report," predicted that by June 1999, 93.2 percent of public libraries would have some type of Internet connection.[3] This rapid growth in access to the Internet has created many opportunities and challenges for public library reference departments to provide services to remote users. These might be users who either cannot, or prefer not to, visit the library for reference service. A variety of remote services are currently being offered, including searching online public access catalogs, interlibrary loan requests, and electronic mail reference.

As the general public becomes increasingly email literate, e-mail reference will most likely be considered an essential service of public library reference departments. It offers library patrons increased accessibility to library services. The offering of e-mail reference service has become increasingly widespread in health and academic libraries, but this service is relatively new to public libraries. As with any reference service, especially a new one, evaluation and study of the service are important. Along with the opportunity to offer a new service comes the responsibility of ensuring that the service is meeting patrons' needs. Examining public library users' experiences with, and attitudes toward, e-mail reference service is a necessary step in evaluating and improving this service. Public librarians need to be able to make informed decisions about the offering of e-mail reference services. This study seeks to: (1) determine the characteristics of electronic mail reference services provided by public libraries and their patrons; (2) identify variables that might affect the use of these services; and (3) assess the level of satisfaction with these services.

Review of Related Literature

To date, the majority of the information available on e-mail reference services is mostly anecdotal; little real research has been conducted.[4] The literature primarily has concentrated on the mechanics of providing and administering e-mail reference services, and the volume of questions that can be expected. In addition, several studies have examined librarians' views on the positive and negative aspects of offering this service. However, few studies have examined the users of e-mail reference services.

Of the small amount of research that has been conducted, the majority has focused on e-mail reference services offered by medical libraries and academic libraries.

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Electronic Mail Reference Services in the Public Library
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