Academic journal article Partnership : the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research

Transaction Analysis of Interactions at the Reference Desk of a Small Academic Library

Academic journal article Partnership : the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research

Transaction Analysis of Interactions at the Reference Desk of a Small Academic Library

Article excerpt


As discussions continue about the changing nature of reference service in academic libraries, the Geoffrey R. Weller Library determined that more detailed information on what was happening at the Reference Desk was needed. During the 2006/07 academic year, transactions at the Reference Desk were analyzed to determine when they occurred (both during the week and during the academic year), the length of time the transactions took, the categories of the transactions, what sources were used and whether or not instruction was provided as part of the transaction. Another round of data was gathered in September 2009 to determine if use patterns had changed. Transactions at the Reference Desk were generally conducted in person, took either <1 min. or between 1-5 min. to answer, and occurred most often on Mon-Thurs between 11am and 5pm. Between September 2006 and September 2009, specific title and research categories of questions decreased by 6% and directional and technical help categories of questions increased by 9%. There was also a decrease in the level of instruction being given. As a result of this research, service hours have been reduced and the ongoing data collection at the Reference Desk has become more detailed to allow for ongoing analysis.


The University of Northern British Columbia is a small university (approximately 3500 FTE) located in northern British Columbia, Canada. The university was founded in 1990 as "a university in the north, for the north" (UNBC History, 1987- 1994). Since then, UNBC has been recognized as one of BC's researchintensive universities, and is consistently ranked the best small university in Western Canada in the Maclean's magazine rankings of Canadian universities (UNBC Best in the West for Fifth Straight Year).

There are many issues tied to the notion of academic reference service; staffing (professional, paraprofessional or a combination of both), what type of service (face to face, electronic synchronous or asynchronous), the demand on the Reference Service (when are patrons asking questions or needing assistance), what types of sources are used (print or electronic), and the amount of time spent in answering questions (Carlson 25-30, Ewing and Hauptman 3-6, Goetsch 15- 16, Merkley 143-147, Ryan 389-399, Spencer and Dorsey 290-294). There is general agreement in the field that "technology has changed the nature of reference desk inquiries significantly" (Henry and Neville 364). Given these concerns about changing reference transactions combined with a concern about staffing the Reference Desk efficiently and an increasing desire to use evidencebased decision-making, it was necessary to determine if there were any patterns in the transactions occurring at our own Reference Desk.

At the Geoffrey R. Weller Library, we use a traditional reference service model where "direct librarian-user interaction takes place in some physical service points, typically the reference desk." (Rieh 179). For the purpose of this survey, a reference transaction was defined as any interaction between a library patron and a reference staff member. The interaction could vary from a very simple directional question (i.e. "Where is the stapler?") to very complex, extended reference questions involving multiple sources. Anecdotal evidence suggested that the nature of the transactions at the Reference Desk was changing, but we did not have any concrete evidence about the changes in these transactions. Statistics about transactions at the Reference Desk have always been gathered using a modified Katz model (Katz 16) with categories of Directional, Basic or Complex; however, these statistics were limited to tally marks indicating which category and at what time of day they occurred. In order to make informed decisions about potential changes to our current Reference Service model, we undertook an analysis of transactions occurring at the Reference Desk at different times throughout the 2006/07 academic year. …

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