Quick and Easy Reference Evaluation: Gathering Users' and Providers' Perspectives

Article excerpt

Imagine a reference survey instrument that is very simple to administer, requires only a pencil to fill out, and gathers data specifically on whether users get the help they need and are satisfied with reference service, and whether in the process they learn about how to find and evaluate information. If you are interested, read on. This third article in the new Management column is written by Jonathan Miller about the reference survey he and his colleagues developed at the University of Pittsburgh. I first met and heard Miller at the 2006 American Library Association (ALA) Annual Conference when he presented his research at the Reference Research Forum. I found it a fascinating and practical approach to obtaining user input; a survey that combined some of the strengths of the Wisconsin Ohio Reference Evaluation Project (WOREP) survey while overcoming some of the shortcomings of that standard workhorse instrument. I was especially interested because this new survey was developed to build upon the survey data libraries gathered from LibQUAL+. LibQUAL+ does not specifically measure reference quality; this survey provides a way of gathering useful evaluation of reference service.

A future column will be about a mid-life librarian who changed careers from a special librarian to an academic librarian, including a discussion of the ups and downs of such a change and the energizing effect of the change. This is of timely interest to administrators and managers because within the next few years a large number of librarians will retire, opening up many higher level positions. Mid-career librarians will be in the prime position to apply for these jobs, if they are willing to make some career changes.

For future columns I am looking for articles on new approaches to managing reference service, such as outreach services in non-library locations, or the use of expert systems, or using instant messaging (IM) as a way of communicating with high school or college students. If you have experiences with any of these or other practical ideas for providing reference service, please e-mail me.--Editor

This research grew from my concern as a public services librarian-manager to find a quick and easy way to evaluate reference service. Most, perhaps all, libraries measure how much reference assistance we provide. Usually we simply count the number of transactions sometimes classifying these transactions by complexity directional, ready reference, and so on) or in terms of medium (in-person, phone, and online). Sometimes we even collect information on how long it takes to complete the transaction. As a profession we have developed a variety of definitions of what constitutes a reference transaction to help with the collection of data. (1) RUSA has developed reference behaviors guidelines that I have found to be very useful during training and development of reference providers (my preferred, if awkward, term for all those employees--librarians, staff, interns, and student employees--who may provide reference service). (2) It is more difficult to measure the quality of the reference service we provide, particularly if we want to avoid overburdening our reference providers and our users. The LibQUAL survey of library service quality asks about "employees who have the knowledge to answer user questions," "employees who deal with users in a caring fashion," and "employees who understand the needs of their users." (3) All of these statements could be related to reference providers, but LibQUAL does not single out individual library services, such as reference. Instead, quite rightly, it asks for users' perceptions of library service quality as provided by the whole library. These perceptions could be formed on the basis of interactions with any library personnel with whom the user interacts.

REFERENCE EVALUATION LITERATURE

The literature on reference evaluation is huge, and this column is not the place to review it. …