Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Reference Classification-Is It Time to Make Some Changes?

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Reference Classification-Is It Time to Make Some Changes?

Article excerpt

In 2005, the authors tested the consistency and ease of use of a skill and strategy-based reference question classification system published by Warner in 2001. Results of that test indicated that the Warner system was a significant improvement over the traditional resource-based system. In this study, reference librarians from other institutions were invited to compare the technology-sensitive Warner system to the traditional Katz classification system. The results of this larger test mirror the findings of the original study. Overall, classification was more consistent using the Warner system.


Libraries of all types depend upon use statistics for planning and managing reference services and for assessing the value and usefulness of the library's collection. Historically, reference statistics have been troublesome to collect because of the qualitative nature of questions and the difficulties in assigning a wide variety of these questions into a minimal number of strict categories. The classification of questions must be distinguishable and consistent if librarians are going to be able to use the results effectively for planning and evaluation.

Online resources and new technologies have altered the types of questions received at library reference desks, leading some institutions to reconsider the classification systems used to document reference service. During selected periods from 2004 to 2005, the authors recorded every question they received while they were staffing the reference desk of a small academic library. The questions were classified two ways-using both the traditional method described by Katz and a new classification method proposed by Warner. (1) The results were compared for ease of use and consistency in classification. The Warner method worked better at the authors' institution and was incorporated by all reference librarians beginning in July 2006. (2) The authors performed the 2005 study, like many studies reported in the literature, at their home organization. They sought to test those results by conducting a similar comparison using participants from multiple organizations.


Classification and analysis of reference questions has intrigued librarians for years. As early as 1951, Lawrence Thompson encouraged colleagues to evaluate existing categories for their usefulness and to construct new classifications as needed) During the mid1960s, the American Library Association (ALA) and the National Center for Educational Statistics cosponsored a national conference aimed at standardizing library statistics? Later studies examined reference question classifications aimed at improving collections, refining staffing needs, or analyzing chat reference services. (5) The evaluation of the Reference and User Services Committee of RUSNs Reference Services Section (RSS) provides a detailed bibliography of articles that traces the evolution of reference service and evaluation? It is unlikely that the collection of statistics relating to reference service activities will ever be completely uniform among all libraries. However, reference librarians and their administrators will continue to collect and compare these data. What, then, can be done to improve the methods that are currently used?

Literature evaluating various types of reference desk activity as well as electronic reference (e.g., chat, e-mail, and instant messaging) abounds. (7) As part of the evaluation of the overall effectiveness of these services, authors have also tried to categorize the nature of the questions received. Katz described traditional reference-question categories in detail as directional, ready reference, specific-search questions, and research. (8) In 2001, Warner suggested a new classification system for reference questions that includes skill-based and technology-related categories (defined as nonresource-based, skill-based, strategy-based, and consultation). …

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