Trends in Reference Usage Statistics in an Academic Health Sciences Library

By De Groote, Sandra L.; Hitchcock, Kristin et al. | Journal of the Medical Library Association, January 2007 | Go to article overview
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Trends in Reference Usage Statistics in an Academic Health Sciences Library

De Groote, Sandra L., Hitchcock, Kristin, McGowan, Richard, Journal of the Medical Library Association

Purpose: To examine reference questions asked through traditional means at an academic health sciences library and place this data within the context of larger trends in reference services.

Methodology: Detailed data on the types of reference questions asked were collected during two one-month periods in 2003 and 2004. General statistics documenting broad categories of questions were compiled over a fifteen-year period.

Results: Administrative data show a steady increase in questions from 1990 to 1997/98 (23,848 to 48,037, followed by a decline through 2004/05 to 10,031. The distribution of reference questions asked over the years has changed-including a reduction in mediated searches 2,157 in 1990/91 to 18 in 2004/05, an increase in instruction 1,284 in 1993/94 to 1,897 in 2004/05 and an increase in digital reference interactions 0 in 1999/2000 to 581 in 2004/05. The most commonly asked questions at the current reference desk are about journal holdings 19%, book holdings 12%, and directional issues 12%.

Conclusions: This study provides a unique snapshot of reference services in the contemporary library, where both online and offline services are commonplace. Changes in questions have impacted the way the library provides services, but traditional reference remains the core of information services in this health sciences library.


The introduction of end-user search systems beginning in the late 1980s initiated a wave of change at the traditional reference desk as users began to use library services in new ways. With the introduction of enduser MEDLINE in the 1980s, many libraries found an increase in requests for individualized instruction, technical assistance, and in-depth reference [1,2]. With new information resources available, library users appeared to find reference services helpful in adapting to this newly emerging information landscape. Not surprisingly, however, increasing electronic access for users has also meant a decline in some areas of traditional reference service, such as mediated searching [3]. These trends have continued as remote access to resources has expanded.

A 1995 survey examining University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) health sciences faculty's uses of library resources found that more than half of the faculty accessed Grateful Med from their offices, and over 20% accessed library resources from home [4]. In 2003, De Groote and Dorsch found that 95% of the students, faculty, and residents reported having access to a computer with Internet access outside of the library, and 53% percent of these users reported that they searched MEDLINE at least once a week [5]. This study also found that only 16% of users depended entirely on the library to access its online resources, while 39% of users never entered the library to access online resources. With today's increased availability of online journals, the above finding is likely to be even more pronounced. If users do not need to come to the library to access information, it can be assumed that there is less motivation for them to come to the library to ask questions about how to find that information.

In response to falling entrance statistics and increasing online collections, libraries have reached out to patrons in new ways. These many changes have encouraged additional reevaluation of traditional reference services and initiation of new programs and services [6]. For example, users now may choose to request assistance from librarians through digital reference services. Recognizing the decreasing numbers of questions being asked, some libraries have consolidated multiple service points to provide "one-stop" assistance, decrease user confusion about where to go for help, and optimize staff resources [7,8]. Other libraries have trained paraprofessionals to work at the reference desk [9]. Both approaches allow librarians to focus more time and effort on instruction, outreach, and online initiatives.

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Trends in Reference Usage Statistics in an Academic Health Sciences Library


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