Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Preference for Reference: New Options and Choices for Academic Library Users

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Preference for Reference: New Options and Choices for Academic Library Users

Article excerpt

This exploratory study investigated the help-seeking preferences of library users at two large urban universities in Toronto. Reference desk and virtual reference users were compared in terms of their perceptions of the options now available for obtaining reference help. The premise for the study was based on the assumption that a reasonable exposure to newer reference services, such as chat and email, had occurred, therefore allowing for an examination of emerging preferences for different types of services. Surveys were distributed to both reference desk and virtual reference users asking seven core questions exploring use and preference for reference services as well as habits and preferences for study location (in library, off campus, etc.). The results suggest that the reference desk continues to be the most popular method of getting help in the library, but virtual reference satisfies a niche for users who prefer to work outside the library. Those who use virtual reference tend to perceive their options for getting help differently from other users. Virtual reference users do not perceive virtual reference as a novelty or as a marginal service, but see it as a significant service option. In addition, the results show that virtual reference services may have a special appeal to graduate students since graduate students seem more likely to conduct their research outside the library. The study concludes with recommendations for planning and for future research.


"He not busy being born is busy dying."

--Bob Dylan

Since the early 1990s, reference services have been in a period of decline and rebirth. The term "transitional" is often used to describe the service culture, the processes, and the technologies involved in providing reference assistance. Along with staggering increases in digital content, we have seen the emergence of a generation of new students who have grown up "native" in a technologically intense world, the rise of distance education and distributed course delivery, the development of the learning commons model; an eclectic student body made up of more nontraditional learners; and we have seen the decline in use of traditional reference services. (1) Prensky, in his essay "Digital Immigrants, Digital Natives," argues that our era is a uniquely pressured one:

   Today's students have not just
   changed incrementally from those
   of the past, nor simply changed
   their slang, clothes, body adornments, or styles, as has
   happened between generations previously. A really
   big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call
   it a "singularity"--an event which changes things so
   fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back.
   This so-called "singularity" is the arrival and rapid dissemination
   of digital technology in the last decades of
   the 20th century. (2)

Reference librarians have considered and studied these wide-ranging transformations--the demographics, technological pressures, and the changing educational climate--and have experimented with and adopted new approaches to service. As Crowe noted, "While WHAT reference librarians do is not so different--we still assist users in finding and evaluating information, provide instruction in using resources, and select materials--HOW we do it, however, and the tools and resources we use have changed dramatically." (3)

One of the most significant developments in reference services these past several years has been the emergence of real-time virtual reference (VR). VR for the purposes of this study is defined as a synchronous, real-time exchange "where patrons employ computers or other Internet technology to communicate with reference staff, without being physically present." (4) The terms "VR" and "chat reference services" will be used interchangeably. The emphasis in our study is on real-time or synchronous services (as opposed to other electronic services by asynchronous methods, such as e-mail reference). …

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