Are We There Yet? Evaluating Library Collections, Reference Services, Programs, and Personnel

By Robbins-Carter, Jane; Zweizig, Douglas L. | American Libraries, December 1985 | Go to article overview

Are We There Yet? Evaluating Library Collections, Reference Services, Programs, and Personnel


Robbins-Carter, Jane, Zweizig, Douglas L., American Libraries


Lesson Three Reference services evaluation

How to participate

Anyone can take this five-lesson continuing education course simply by reading the materials presented and cited here. However, to earn a Certificate of Completion from the American Library Association and University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Library and Information Studies, participants must register by December 31, using the form on page 625 of the October 1985 American Libraries. Complete instructions for course participation appear with the registration form in the October issue.

EVALUATING, AS DESCRIBED IN LESSON ONE, can be outlined as a seven-step process. To review:

1. Determine the target area.

2. Set the target.

3. How will you know? What information will be needed in order to judge whether the target is being hit?

4. Take a look at the information gathered in Step 3.

5. How close are you? Compare information gathered in Step 4 to the target set in Step 2 by determining the difference.

6. So what? Determine what to do based on the difference identified in Step 5.

7. Rethink the specific evaluation process in light of the library's goals, objectives, and priorities; i.e., integrate the evaluation into the library's planning process.

Reference services evaluation

Like most library activities, reference services can be evaluated from different points of view; for example, how well the service responds to user requests, how efficiently the service performs (e.g., by number of questions served per staff member), or social contribution of the service in terms of dollar spent. This lesson will look at the first point of view, effectiveness in terms of user experience considering only that part of the reference service consisting of the personal assistance provided users in pursuit of information, excluding the closely related areas of interlibrary loan and bibliographic instruction.

The specific techniques used for evaluating reference effectiveness will focus on: 1) total number of reference questions received; 2) proportion of answers provided to inquiries received; and 3) accuracy with which questions are answered.

Total number of reference questions received

There are no national standards stating the minimum or average number of reference questions or reference transactions that should be received or handled each year by any specific type of library, library of a stated collection size, or library serving a certain size of population; therefore, setting an appropriate target for total number of reference questions received will require an estimate of your previous activity and discussion with librarians from libraries serving similar user communities or with consultants in state library agencies or professional associations who may have access to quantitative descriptions of reference service. Based upon your analysis of the data available, you may decide that as a beginning target one reference question each year for every member of your service population is the appropriate target. For example, if your user population is 10,000, the target would be 10,000 reference questions received annually.

In practice, a measure of reference transactions per capita is more meaningful and better for interlibrary comparisons than a direct count of these transactions. Therefore, the target measure for this example would be one annual reference transaction per capita.

In all measurement activity, a precise definition of exactly what is being measure is important. Developing a precise definition of a reference transaction for your library may prove difficult. You can obtain some definitions from such works as the Library Data Collection Handbook, but you will need to test the definitions in your own library to be sure they can be consistently applied. One definition of a reference transaction that may be useful is: any inquiry in person or by mail or by phone, from either a child or an adult, that requires the use of library materials or the professional judgment of the librarian to answer the question. …

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