Magazine article Online

The Impact of Digital Reference on Librarians and Library Users

Magazine article Online

The Impact of Digital Reference on Librarians and Library Users

Article excerpt

Communications to the authors should be addressed to Carol Tenopir, School of Information Science, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN 37996; 423/974-2148; Fax 423/974-4967, ctenopir@utk. edu; and/or Lisa Ennis, Mercer University, Macon, GA 31207; 912/752-5334; Fax 912/752-2252; ennis_la@Mercer.EDU.

Libraries in universities embrace a variety of digital options, as we described in our article in July ONLINE, "The Digital Reference World of Academic Libraries" [1]. Rarely do they replace one reference option when another appears-mediated online searching was added in the 1970s to coexist with print, CD-ROM and locally loaded databases were added in the 1980s end-user online searching and the World Wide Web became popular in the early 1990s. Today, all these options together form the modern reference unit. Librarians move agilely from one to the other to find the best resource and searching features for every patron and each question. Not only do new technologies join the older ones on a regular basis, but new software or new editions mean a continual learning process and constant change.

All of this change makes for a dynamic and exciting environment for reference librarians and for patrons [2]. One librarian told us:

The advent of electronic reference service has greatly added to the challenge of the job by multiplying the potential avenues of research. It has simultaneously increased the chances for the successful resolution of many reference questions and the demands these resources place on the librarians skills. I have been a professional reference librarian for 17 years and would have become bored with the work if electronics had not revolutionized it.

Excitement can be a double-edged sword, however. I suspect this university librarian is not alone when she says all of the changes are "exciting, but we're wearing out..."

University reference librarians report a variety of effects, both positive and negative, from the rapid and widespread adoption of electronic media during the last decades. The process of change did not just begin in the last few years--in 1991 we surveyed these same librarians to learn their reactions to change at that time [3]. However, this decade of the Internet has seen a tremendous escalation in electronic options and use, especially since the mid-1990s.

We've grouped the changes reported by the librarians from 68 academic research libraries who responded to our survey into three main areas:

1) Attitudes

2) Instruction

3) Workload and the workplace environment


Expectations and attitudes toward the research process have changed for both librarians and users. Heightened expectations from students and, to a lesser degree, from faculty is noticed by many librarians. Partly because of media hype about the wonders of the Internet and the ubiquity of the World Wide Web, students expect to be able to answer every question and do every research project online. Good reference service enhances these expectations, while adding a dose of reality as well. Access to good secondary sources with as much full text as possible is clearly important to help meet these heightened expectations. One librarian commented:

The biggest change is increased user expectations. More and more users expect to be able to find everything online, full text. Technology lets us do much more, but it also increases expectations about what we can do.

Another observed:

Students don't ask, "How can I find information on subject x?" They ask, "What database do I search to find information on subject x?" After they have done their search, then most of them seem to need to learn how to find out if our library holds the material.

The users are not the only ones with increased expectations or changes in attitudes. Reference librarians told us repeatedly that they see a direct correlation between the proliferation of electronic reference sources and their own increased satisfaction with their jobs. …

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