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Reference questions - what is, what isn't

Page history last edited by Kim Miller 8 years, 5 months ago

Original Question (1/9/12):


Nicolle Steffen (CO)


Please excuse the long-winded question below, but I really need input from y’all on this complicated and controversial point about reference questions.


I’ve got one library director that counts all technology questions as reference questions. Here’s some of what she says…


Ever since the World Wide Web push in the early 90’s, everyone I know has been including the very questions you label as “technology” questions as reference questions. In fact this was a matter of staff training in libraries where I worked and in others that I was aware of. I can name a number of places that always counted these helps as reference, and I am guessing that they still do so.


Staff also required specific training in order to be able to answer all the software, and hardware, questions that began and have continued to grow ever since. Hence, hours and hours of specialized training on every aspect of patron help with technology.


As far as I was taught, if staff are asked a question and must train a patron to use some technology or software in order to answer their question, then it was every bit as much a reference question as was any other where they might train them to use a print index, train them to use a database, or whatever. If someone needs to learn how to set up an e-mail account, for example, and staff do a mini-training on that process, they must have the knowledge to do so or they must use other print or online resources to tell them the steps, and that is a reference transaction….or has been in every place I know of.


She goes on to say that pretty much any question that a staff member answers that is not directional is counted as a reference question.


It was my understanding that technology help, like setting up an email account for a customer doesn’t count as a reference transaction. Years ago the explanation I got was that a reference transaction must involve all of the following: 1) information contact, 2) knowledge, use, recommendations, interpretation, or instruction, and 3) one or more information source. For me the "information source" often sorts the technology help questions from the reference transactions. So, for example, helping a patron open a Word document isn’t a reference question, but helping them find an answer in a database is a reference question.


Several colleagues working in public libraries have given me the proverbial slap upside the head and told me that on the ground all sorts of things are being counted as reference. Okay, I get it, but I also feel obligated to at least accurately represent and promote the national definition.


Before I contact this library director, I’d like to get feedback from y’all.



One of our county librarians is asking me where to put the indirect costs that the county is now taking from the library district budget. The county has now begun to sweep library district funds – based on a formula for indirect costs. How do I represent this little shell game of a cut?



SDC Comments:


Susan Mark (WY)


Mixed feelings on this one, but would you count it as reference if you showed a patron how to use a print encyclopedia? One way of looking at it is that just as the encyclopedia is a container for info, so is the computer. 


Printer problems... not so much. I wouldn't consider that a reference question.


That said, I'd be perfectly happy to see collection of reference stats go bye-bye. I know many of my numbers have little or nothing to do with which libraries do a lot of reference and which don't. More to do with which libraries track them more diligently.... OR collect non-reference as reference.



Michael Golrick (LA)


As you can see from my title below, I get to deal with this every single day! (Although my stats count for the "other" survey - StLA.)


At my reference desk, and for the librarians who ask me, we count the technology help we give people as a reference question. Back when I was first a library director (and computers were new), my library got a PC for public use (very cutting edge in mid-80s, it increased the computer [PC] count in the building by 33%). We counted the help we gave folks with using Word, logging on to AOL (or Compuserv or what ever other service) as a reference question.


I think that Susan's analogy is apt. I'll also note, that with the move to e-government, and closing of agency offices, more and more folks count on public computers for basic help. In a glance at our stats over the past

year, "computer assistance" as a category accounts for about 1/3 of all of our walk-in traffic. That is a significant portion of our business (and busy-ness) to not measure.



John DeBacher (WI)


I’m with Susan—the “squishy” factor of the reference data collection is to great. On the one hand, I’m sure researchers and larger libraries want to be able to validate the question-answering role of libraries, but we know too well that if we cataloged the data elements, “reference” would get shelved in fiction.


In fact, since I have been more vigilant in requiring libraries to either count or survey (no more “rough estimates”), our rate of submission has dropped us below the threshold where WI’s reference even counts nationally. I still send the libraries reminders in September to do a survey week in October, but who has time, and who remembers? I speculate that even the numbers that I do receive are largely fabricated.


Now that I got that out of my system, I also agree with Susan and Mr. Golrick that computer assistance can frequently count as reference. Not “how do I print this?” but “How can I find that free tax service?” or “Can you help me set up an email account?”


If we are going to continue to collect reference statistics, then we need more detailed and uniform guidelines on what is collected. I suspect most of us are still relying on the 1987-vintage Output Measures for Public Libraries (get it for only a penny through Amazon!) for definition and procedures.

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