Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Clinging to Traditional Reference Services

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Clinging to Traditional Reference Services

Article excerpt

An Open Invitation to

To begin with, let me set the context for this critical assessment of the future of reference. I am not a reference librarian. I am an administrator responsible for library operations, among other things. So why do I care? Why have I interfered in your business? Each year I have to assess the effectiveness of reference activities (as a part of our overall public services) and determine at what level to fund them for the next year. Making this assessment is typically difficult, since the circumstances of reference are increasingly complex and ambiguous. The complexity derives both from the continuing digitization of published knowledge and the advent of distance learning (which has begun to separate the reference librarian and the user). I admit that making an assessment is also difficult because I intuitively believe that reference service is important but find it increasingly out of touch--so the assessment process is a struggle between my heart and my head. What I will share with you here is my current view, as an administrator, of reference services in an academic library setting.

A Current Assessment of Reference

Since the early 1990s, when I first became involved in rethinking reference, the situation actually seems to have gotten worse rather than better. Several factors drive me to this conclusion.

The Fifty-Five Percent Problem

First, I am dumbstruck that traditional reference seems persistently unable to deliver suitably high-quality service. This inescapable conclusion comes from a number of studies conducted since the mid-1980s that repeatedly verify these findings. One recent assessment summarized the situation as follows: "The troublesome fact remains that whether we examine public, academic, or special libraries, or whether we measure reference success by accuracy of the answer or by willingness of the user to return, the success rate for information service hovers in the 50 to 60 percent range."(1) This is what I call the fifty-five percent problem. Only slightly more than half the time do reference librarians manage to give users the information they seek--by any standard a poor performance. Do you know of any other business that could survive with such a miserable record? Knowing that those who seek reference help do not get what they need almost half the time is a staggering thought. Think about it. How many of you are proud of this record? How many of you publicize this statistic to your colleagues on campus? How many of you think that this applies to other reference librarians but that you have a much better success rate in your own work?

To be candid, I simply do not understand how this circumstance has continued unchanged for some thirteen years after it was diagnosed by Hernon and McClure.(2) For me as a library administrator, its persistence is frustrating, discouraging, and scandalous. Do you find it troubling? Some, of course, apparently do not. One recent analysis of the situation defiantly notes that efforts at reforming reference over these years have failed.(3) Does the failure of suggestions for reform, if indeed they were seriously tried, vindicate the traditional, forty-five percent ineffective reference practice? Does the failure of reform efforts exempt reference librarians from the obligation to seek more effective reform? Simply because the profession has failed to provide you with a viable alternative model does not excuse you from continuing the search for one.

Declining Business

The second factor that suggests to me that the circumstance of reference is getting worse is simply that the demand for traditional reference is declining. The decline in the number of reference questions is a generally reported phenomenon among members of the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) and will likely be an increasingly common occurrence in academic settings as the use of technology in learning expands. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.