Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Reference Work and the Value of Reading Newspapers

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Reference Work and the Value of Reading Newspapers

Article excerpt

An Unobtrusive Study of Telephone Reference Service

In this study, we discuss, from a historical perspective, the value of reading newspapers as an integral part of reference service provision. We then examine, through an unobtrusive test of telephone reference service at twenty-one public libraries in Canada, whether reference staff are paying attention to newspapers in their work. We drew questions requiring short factual answers from the national paper of record, The Globe and Mail. We asked these questions 231 times. We found that respondents answered 19.5 percent of these questions accurately, and made referrals to external agencies about one quarter of the time. When we followed up on these referrals, we found that 60 percent of them led to accurate answers. Patrons who ask telephone reference questions can therefore expect to get an accurate answer at a rate of 34.2 percent, including successful referrals to external sources. This relatively low level of accuracy could cause the loyalty of patrons to their public libraries to erode, since at least one management study of high-level business executives has suggested that accuracy is the most important factor in determining service quality. Libraries might want to institute policies that provide time for their reference staff to read newspapers and magazines. Schools of library and information science might wish to stress the value of

keeping up with current events in the syllabi of any reference courses that they offer.

Given that newspapers are an important source of daily information about a wide variety of topics, the question arises as to whether reference librarians should be reading newspapers on a daily basis, or at least glancing at the headlines to get a sense of the state of their country and the world. At one time, the answer was an unequivocal yes. In his 1930 book Reference Work, Wyer urged librarians to "faithfully read at least one local newspaper" and to "keep somewhat in touch with affairs of state and nation as well as city ... through a metropolitan daily or an able review."(1) Hutchins, in her 1944 Introduction to Reference Work, was adamant about the central role that newspapers play in the provision of superior reference service. She noted that "a very large proportion of the reference work in practically all types and sizes of libraries is accomplished by means of periodicals and newspapers."(2) Accordingly, she concluded, newspapers and periodicals are "indispensable" because they "supply the most up-to-date information on all subjects."(3) Nevertheless, questions about current events often pose real problems for reference staff because the librarian is either "ignorant of the particular sources of information" or is "at fault in failing to keep himself [or herself] informed on current affairs and technical subjects."(4) Hutchins thus encouraged librarians to constantly read newspapers and periodicals.

Hutchins emphasized the necessity for reference librarians to be well informed and able to orient themselves, with a minimum of difficulty, in relation to current topics of importance. Moreover, the page layout and unique identity of each newspaper or periodical becomes a rich mnemonic device. The newspaper or magazine is useful not only for its content, but also as a self-referential and efficacious way of ordering and classifying that content.

The focus on reading newspapers as an important part of reference service still thrived in the early 1960s. A 1963 issue of the Journal of Education for Librarianship was devoted to trying to determine the "most basic needs and present shortcomings in reference training."(5) Summarizing an emerging consensus, Harris wrote that one of seven key areas identified as requiring further attention was "[t]he need to be alert to what is going on in the world and to keep informed by reading newspapers and periodicals as well as books." The rationale she gave for this was that, "if you know authors, languages, sports, music, mathematics, food and wines, coins, paintings, someday someone . …

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