Specialized Reference Services at Illinois: Reference Transactional Analysis and Its Implications for Service Providers and Administrators

By Lenkart, Joe; Yu, Jen-chien | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Specialized Reference Services at Illinois: Reference Transactional Analysis and Its Implications for Service Providers and Administrators


Lenkart, Joe, Yu, Jen-chien, Reference & User Services Quarterly


As reference service environments continue to evolve, service providers and administrators are encountering numerous challenges and opportunities. This article examines the specialized reference services at the University of Illinois. Using reference transactional data from two academic years (69,630 transactions), this study focuses on five specialized service points and two general service points. Moreover, this study analyzed READ Scale scores, duration of the transaction, question type, and subject area covered during these transactions.

Like many research institutions today, the University of Illinois has been investigating questions related to service models, staffing, and the role of departmental units, and working toward an adaptable service plan that is capable of addressing the short- and long-term research needs of users. Reference services are contributing to these ongoing discussions proactively, thus engaging users, administrators, and colleagues to design and implement innovative services. To contribute to this discussion on reference services, this study aims to provide a fresh look at specialized reference services at a large research library by examining in-person, phone, and email transactions from five specialized and two general reference service points for the period July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2015. The reference transactional analysis also focuses on duration of the transaction, Reference Effort Assessment Data (READ) Scale scores, question type, and subject area. Through quantitative analysis, we hope to shed some light on the intricacies that link reference environments and shape their evolving roles at academic libraries.

Since their inception in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reference services at public, academic, and special libraries have experienced numerous shifts in service models, scope, and capabilities. Some of the shifts in service models were the result of evidence-based findings, and others were the product of systemic changes in higher education. As reference service models evolved, the role of reference professionals also went through a transformation. In his historical narrative of reference services and libraries, Thomas J. Galvin assigns eight additional functions for reference professionals in "amplified reference services." In addition to instruction- and assistance-related duties, these functions include compiling bibliographies, topical guides, indexes, and collections aids; indexing and abstracting; "translation"; and "editorial and publishing services." (1) Although some of these functions are still performed by reference professionals, in most academic libraries the vast majority of these functions are now conducted by library vendors and service suppliers. The reference environment now rests heavily on subscription-based resources and the extensive possibilities associated with online resources. Moreover, the most recent realignments and consolidations experienced by academic libraries have fundamentally altered the identities of reference services and their historical role at these institutions.

Yet this reference environment still retains its vitality and continues to explore alternative service models to provide research services to diverse groups of academic communities. As Steiner, (2) Hess, (3) and Lenkart et al. (4) have shown, reference services continue to evolve and play a vital role in the research process of students and faculty. The reference service landscape now operates on different modes of activity with multiple integrated service points to support the needs of diverse communities of scholars at academic, public, and special libraries. As we move forward with innovative service models, it becomes increasingly imperative for reference professionals and library administrators to examine the intricacies of managing integrated service "hubs," specialized reference services, staff training, quality control, and the referral infrastructure at academic institutions. …

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