Reference Work and the Value of Reading Newspapers: An Unobtrusive Study of Telephone Reference Service

by Juris Dilevko and Elizabeth Dolan

Published in Reference & User Services Quarterly 39, no. 1 (1999): 71-81.


In this study, we discuss, from a historical perspective, the value of reading newspapers as an integral part of reference service provision. We then examine, through an unobtrusive test of telephone reference service at twenty-one public libraries in Canada, whether reference staff are paying attention to newspapers in their work. We drew questions requiring short factual answers from the national paper of record, The Globe and Mail. We asked these questions 231 times. We found that respondents answered 19.5 percent of these questions accurately, and made referrals to external agencies about one quarter of the time. When we followed up on these referrals, we found that 60 percent of them led to accurate answers. Patrons who ask telephone reference questions can therefore expect to get an accurate answer at a rate of 34.2 percent, including successful referrals to external sources. This relatively low level of accuracy could cause the loyalty of patrons to their public libraries to erode, since at least one management study of high-level business executives has suggested that accuracy is the most important factor in determining service quality. Libraries might want to institute policies that provide time for their reference staff to read newspapers and magazines. Schools of library and information science might wish to stress the value of keeping up with current events in the syllabi of any reference courses that they offer.

Juris Dilevko is on the faculty of Information Studies at University of Toronto; e-mail: Elizabeth Dolan is on the faculty of Information and Media Studies, University of Western Ontario. The authors offer special thanks to their research assistant, Moya Mason, for her dedicated, selfless, and responsible work in gathering data for this study.

Given that newspapers are an important source of daily information about a wide variety of topics, the question arises as to whether reference librarians should be reading newspapers on a daily basis, or at least glancing at the headlines to get a sense of the state of their country and the world. At one time, the answer was an unequivocal yes. In his 1930 book Reference Work, Wyer urged librarians to "faithfully read at least one local newspaper" and to "keep somewhat in touch with affairs of state and nation as well as city ... through a metropolitan daily or an able review."(1) Hutchins, in her 1944 Introduction to Reference Work, was adamant about the central role that newspapers play in the provision of superior reference service. She noted that "a very large proportion of the reference work in practically all types and sizes of libraries is accomplished by means of periodicals and newspapers."(2) Accordingly, she concluded, newspapers and periodicals are "indispensable" because they "supply the most up-to-date information on all subjects."(3) Nevertheless, questions about current events often pose real problems for reference staff because the librarian is either "ignorant of the particular sources of information" or is "at fault in failing to keep himself [or herself] informed on current affairs and technical subjects."(4) Hutchins thus encouraged librarians to constantly read newspapers and periodicals.

Hutchins emphasized the necessity for reference librarians to be well informed and able to orient themselves, with a minimum of difficulty, in relation to current topics of importance. Moreover, the page layout and unique identity of each newspaper or periodical becomes a rich mnemonic device. The newspaper or magazine is useful not only for its content, but also as a self-referential and efficacious way of ordering and classifying that content.

The focus on reading newspapers as an important part of reference service still thrived in the early 1960s. A 1963 issue of the Journal of Education for Librarianship was devoted to trying to determine the "most basic needs and present shortcomings in reference training."(5) Summarizing an emerging consensus, Harris wrote that one of seven key areas identified as requiring further attention was "[t]he need to be alert to what is going on in the world and to keep informed by reading newspapers and periodicals as well as books." The rationale she gave for this was that, "if you know authors, languages, sports, music, mathematics, food and wines, coins, paintings, someday someone ... will be grateful to you for an answer."(6) Clearly, reading newspapers or periodicals--repositories of diverse information where the reader is as likely to learn about sports as about music--was considered to be an avenue toward expanding librarians' generalist knowledge, as it could contribute to a state of alertness and confident familiarity with national and world events. The corollary was that such generalist knowledge could be useful at some undetermined date in the future, when librarians would be called upon, following Hutchins's metaphor, to unroll the stocks of accumulated film in their mind and locate a necessary fact.

After 1963, the emphasis on the role of newspapers in the provision of general reference service decreased, particularly in public libraries. One reason for this could be the fact that reading newspapers for their intellectual content might have been mistakenly conflated with clipping and filing newspapers and periodicals. This latter activity, as Katz makes clear in the first edition of his Introduction to Reference Work: Reference Services, was something that was felt to be undesirable for reference staff, since it was overloading them with ancillary functions that could be performed by others.(7) Katz's central point was that a reference librarian should be concentrating on other tasks, such as actively helping users with their questions. If this confusion and blending of tasks did indeed occur, then it is easy to understand the almost complete disappearance of reading newspapers as a systematically recommended activity for reference librarians.

Nonetheless, sporadic mention of the value of newspapers in reference work does exist, for example, in the 1986 Self-Assessment Guide for Reference, published by the Continuing Library Education Network and Exchange Roundtable of the American Library Association. The guide contained a multiple-choice quiz consisting of seven questions under the section heading "Knowledge of the Community." Two of the questions dealt either directly or indirectly with the value of reading newspapers, with the answers indicating that the activity helped library personnel to anticipate the needs of the community.(8)

Newspapers and periodicals continue to be lauded for their ability to provide the most up-to-date information. Yates, emphasizing the importance of continuous updating for all types of information, particularly government information, urged librarians to "scan several periodicals and newspapers for important changes and record various events or data on information cards or factsheets."(9) This activity is especially necessary, she observed, for telephone reference work, where speed and convenience of sources is a primary consideration. In addition, as part of a program designed to enhance the cultural literacy of librarians, D'Aniello, invoking the tradition of Jacques Barzun who felt that librarians should be well-read generalist scholars, briefly suggests that "all public service librarians should regularly read newspapers and news magazines as well as ... critical book reviews."(10)

The existence of electronic databases such as ProQuest and Lexis-Nexis is an objection to the need for public library staff to spend time looking at stories in newspapers and periodicals. And the amount of valuable and easily accessible information available on the Web increases daily. Many questions patrons ask at the reference desk can be answered quickly by searching the Web or proprietary databases with one or more keywords, the application of simple Boolean logic, and the use of a few well-chosen proximity operators and restrictions. However, all public library reference staff might not have access to these extensive databases or to the Web. Still, as technological advances continue into the twenty-first century and as more public libraries become hubs of electronic information, inevitable innovations in digitization and refinements in searching protocols will make the retrieval of facts a relatively simple task.

Yet, a general knowledge of current issues and emerging trends is an integral part of good library service because it allows for the anticipation of information needs. Collection development librarians, for instance, want to know the release dates of major films based on books and the title of the latest novel recommended by Oprah Winfrey because, in this way, they can anticipate increased demand for these titles in their libraries. Charles and Mosley, who suggested various ways to forge a collection development department that would be impervious to outsourcing, recommended that librarians keep up with current issues and trends so as to better anticipate demand.(11) Similarly, current news stories stimulate reader interest in finding out more about the subject under discussion. This is one of the reasons that the bookseller instituted a sponsorship arrangement with the Web page of a nightly network news program on which it advertises, through hyperlinks, books dealing with the topics of key news stories reported that day. Librarians who understand the relationship between current topics and increased demand for books about such topics are taking an important step in serving the needs of their community.

The Growth of Environmental Scanning

Perhaps surprisingly, the best example of the value of anticipating user needs by tracking current news stories through newspapers and periodicals comes from the business world, where the concept is called "environmental scanning." As explained by Newsome and McInerney, numerous corporations and nonprofit organizations have established scanning teams to identify and analyze contemporary events and trends that might be of use in their work. They describe three levels of scanning. The first level is defined as "the passive scanning that we all do in order to keep abreast of what is happening in the world." The second level involves "scanning the environment actively" and creating "broad categories to help sort out the glut of information discovered." Some of these categories may include political/governmental, social, economic, and technological. The third level is concerned with requests "in a directed way" for information on a specific topic.(12)

There are a number of concepts to notice in this scanning model. The first two levels of scanning are nondirected; that is, no specific request for any of the gathered pieces of information is ever made. Yet, it is often this type of information that proves most valuable for an organization in the long term. In addition, the most successful scanning programs are described as concentrating on newspapers and periodicals. Recommended reading consists of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Utne Reader, American Demographics, and even Seventeen. Finally, only at the third scanning level does a search of electronic databases come into play, because only at this level is there a request for a specific piece of information. Corporations and nonprofit organizations who have instituted scanning programs are thus implicitly recognizing the existence of what Cove and Walsh called "serendipity browsing, a process which, by its very nature, does not depend on the sheer size and power of databases."(13) Nonetheless, it is an essential component of a larger information-awareness culture within an organization. The gathered information serves not only as a potential repository of immediate answers to specific questions, but also as a resource that may provide a contextual starting point for a process that eventually leads to a required answer.

After extensively examining the information-scanning practices of chief executive officers in the Canadian telecommunications sector, Choo found that although these high-level managers "use printed sources to perform general, wide-area viewing of the external environment before they home in on particular issues of concern," they nevertheless require filtering and evaluating services to translate this external environmental information "into terms that are meaningful internally."(14) Choo therefore saw a new or expanded role for special librarians in corporations, since they could institute "[a] more systematic approach to information gathering and organization," which would have the added benefit of "avoid[ing] information gaps that may result from simply relying on personal memory or serendipitous encounters to supply information about environmental change."(15)

A perfect example of what Choo had in mind is provided by Buchanan, who reported on the central role played by the special librarian at Highsmith, Inc., the leading mail-order supplier of book displays, audio-video tools, and educational software for schools and libraries.(16) The CEO of this company specifically mandated that the corporate librarian be in charge of "searching for nascent trends, provocative contradictions, and most important, connections that could eventually reshape his business [original emphasis]."(17) To accomplish this, the librarian sifts through "stacks of articles on subjects ranging from juvenile crime to semiotics to the anatomy of dragonflies" in order to ensure that the company never becomes short-sighted and possesses a vision of what the future might resemble. In essence, the librarian seeks to identify, assemble, and analyze far-flung societal developments for Highsmith, Inc. Her project, called "Life, the Universe, and Everything," involves spending "20 percent of her time scanning newspapers, magazines, on-line databases, and Web sites...and her antennae are always up for interesting tidbits from television, radio, advertising, or casual conversation."(18)

The significant point here is that the Highsmith's corporate librarian never knows what she is looking for or what she will find. Instead, she has to be alert to a wide variety of issues, themes, social trends, and occurrences, and her perusal of media sources has to be sufficiently detailed so that she can reject material as well as flag it as potentially valuable. As a result, she becomes a walking, well-informed resource for everyone in the company, not just those who have assigned her specific tasks and searches.

What can public library reference staff learn from the concept of environmental scanning? Again, the central issue is anticipation of user needs. Just as companies have implemented scanning strategies to serve their goals of developing new products and strategies to increase profits, librarians who wish to make their reference area a center of practive excellence seriously should consider staffing it with personnel who, in addition to their electronic- and print-source searching skills, have a broad base of knowledge about current topics and emerging trends. This knowledge can only add to the informational options and assets available to the general public. Kemp, in a book devoted to explaining the function and purpose of current awareness services, recommended that public libraries follow in the footsteps of special and academic libraries by instituting current awareness services for the benefit of a wide variety of community groups, from politicians to local horticultural clubs. Public libraries, he wrote, "seem to be losing (indeed in some cases more finally to have lost) an excellent opportunity of publicity for themselves, as well as the chance to reach a larger and more various clientele and potential clientele, not just in industry and commerce, but quite generally" by not offering this type of service.(19) Kemp's argument is that, were public libraries to offer what amounts to an environmental scanning service for targeted groups, they would be viewed as providing an indispensable service--one that would be at the top of any priorities list when it comes to governmental funding. Ultimately, libraries are responsible to the taxpayers--stakeholders--of their funding communities in much the same way as corporations are responsible to their shareholders. In a sense, then, the environmental scanning movement of the 1990s is not so very far removed from Hutchins's 1944 appraisal of the importance of regular reading of newspapers and periodicals for librarians. Common to both concepts is the desire to provide added-value servies to the shareholders, or stakeholders, of an organization, whether it be for-profit or nonprofit.

Purpose of the Research

The primary purpose of this article is to examine whether library reference staff are cognizant of popular media sources (such as newspapers) as a potential source of ready reference information. A second purpose is to gauge the quality of telephone reference service in public libraries in Canada. Third, we explore what happens when library staff members make referrals.

We chose telephone reference service as the unit of analysis for two reasons. First, libraries are promoting telephone reference services as an integral part of their community service. In the 1980s, the ALA used the slogan "Call Your Library" in a national advertising campaign, and the New York City Public Library System handed out wallet-size cards with the message "Call the Library for Fast Facts."(20) Second, telephone reference service is generally characterized by a need for speed. Quinn identifies speed as one of the four essential qualities in telephone reference service because, among other reasons, callers do not like to be kept waiting.(21) If librarians are in the practice of glancing at newspapers or periodicals on a regular basis, they will likely remember seeing or reading a story about a particular topic and will be able to retrieve the relevant item in a relatively short period of time. Moreover, Smith notes that the three components in developing a sound collection development policy for telephone reference are relevancy, accessibility, and timeliness.(22) Newspapers and periodicals fit all three criteria.

Literature Review

Although telephone reference has always been a significant component of reference work, the 1990s in particular have been marked by increased attention to improving the quality of the service. For example, the Orange County Library System in Florida separated reference service offered to walk-in patrons from reference service provided to phone clients by implementing a program called Quest Line.(23) Located in a nonpublic area, Quest Line is staffed by twelve full-time librarians who have access to "approximately 270 titles located on a special carousel with five rotating shelves" and who work at nine computerized workstations equipped with the Internet, CD-ROMs, and an in-house database.(24) Quest Line received more than 140,000 queries in 1996, and 75 percent of these were answered during the patron's initial call. Questions that cannot be answered with the resources available to the Quest Line department are "electronically transmitted and printed out for the appropriate subject department's librarian to answer."(25) Answers are then later forwarded to patrons either by voice messages or fax services.

What types of questions are asked through telephone reference service? Allan and Smith, as well as Brown, reported that only about 33 to 35 percent of calls could be classified as reference questions, with the remainder being informational and directional in nature (library hours, library policy, CD-ROM signups, etc.).(26) However, a study of after-hours telephone reference service in Maryland by Duke reported that approximately 95 percent of the questions could be considered as ready reference.(27) Success rates also vary. A series of early unobtrusive studies by Crowley et al. examined telephone reference service and found that the rate of correct answers, both in public and academic libraries, hovered between 50 and 57 percent.(28) Paskoff, in a study of telephone reference service in academic health sciences and hospital libraries, reported that completely accurate responses were received 63 percent of the time, and that partially complete responses that were nevertheless not inaccurate were received 78 percent of the time.(29) Duke noted a success rate of 84 percent in answering telephone reference queries, although this figure is based on self-evaluation by library personnel.(30)


Over a six-month period extending from late February to early August 1998, we selected eleven news stories that appeared in various sections of The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper and paper of record. For a list of these questions and bibliographic information about each news story, see Appendix A. Five of these questions (identified as [G] in the appendix) were government reference questions, four questions (identified as [NG] in the appendix) were unambiguously not government reference questions, and the remaining two questions (identified as [G-NG] in the appendix) sought information of the type that very well could have been within the purview of government departments, but in reality was not. The partial focus on government reference questions was due to the fact that the present study was an outgrowth of a larger study that we conducted about the quality of government documents reference service in Canadian depository libraries.(31) In that study, we found that many library reference personnel were unaware of recent government initiatives or changes despite the existence of reports about them in the popular press. We were therefore curious about the general level of attention paid to the content of newspapers.

Within one week of the appearance of each news story, a research assistant telephoned the central branches of the public libraries in the twenty most populous census metropolitan areas in the English-speaking provinces of Canada, as identified by Statistics Canada, with a reference question based on the stories. The largest public libraries in Canada were selected in order that "best-case" results might be achieved, since large public libraries provide telephone reference service to a greater extent than smaller libraries. We provided the research assistant with copies of the stories from which the questions were drawn and asked the research assistant to become familiar with the general themes of the story so that she would be able to provide, if necessary, further details and a likely rationale for her information need to a library staff member. This follows the practice of Childers, who recommened that proxies be encouraged to sound as natural as possible so that their information need would seem real.(32) There are two large public libraries in Toronto; thus we called a total of twenty-one public libraries eleven times each. In sum, we asked 231 questions unobtrusively. We recorded responses received from library personnel manually during and immediately after each telephone conversation, and then transcribed them. We did not tape these conversations. Libraries were not identified by name or location in the final transcription of results to preserve anonymity. All twenty-one libraries had subscriptions to The Globe and Mail.

We selected the stories used in this study on the basis of their prominence within the newspaper and their susceptibility to forming a factual telephone ready-reference question. Taken as a whole, the questions covered a broad range of subjects. We defined prominence in the following ways: a selected story appeared on the first two pages of the entire newspaper, or the front page of any of the major sections, or the op-ed page, or it was reprinted/matched from the New York Times. This last criteria was included on the basis that a reprinted story from the paper of record in the United States was likely to be a major story of particular interest.

The practice of unobtrusive research, especially the work of McClure and Hernon, has received severe criticism in the past.(33) Durrance and Tyckoson, for example, have suggested that a more qualitative approach to the evaluation of reference services is needed, and that the 55-percent accuracy rate revealed by unobtrusive studies is not a valid measure of the total service provided by reference staff.(34) The qualitative approach would take into account the interaction between librarian and user by concentrating on behavioral aspects of the reference process, and the results of such studies have suggested that reference success rates are much higher than the 55-percent rule. For instance, Parker reported a 72.3-percent success rate, while Jardine pointed to a 99-percent success rate, as measured by whether the patron would return to the same library staff member with another question.(35) Hults, however, observed that responses of this nature "beg the question" because what the library community "really needs to address" is the question of whether a 55-percent accuracy rate "is acceptable [and] if not, what priority do libraries place on improving that rate."(36) She noted that many public and academic libraries have adopted policies in which unobtrusive testing of the service provided by reference staff is a vital part of self-evaluation studies. Certainly, there are many ways to evaluate the quality of reference service, but "accuracy of information ... seems the baseline to work from."(37)

Altman went even further, arguing that the dismal results uncovered by unobtrusive studies "call into serious question the quality of information services currently provided."(38) Who, she asked, would trust a doctor "who could affect a cure for only half of the patients," or an accountant whose work was audited "as defective" half the time by the IRS? Libraries, she concluded, have a responsibility "to render a service equal in quality to what expect to receive from other professional groups."(39) Simply stating that any perceived problem is "much more complex" than it is at first sight fails to recognize that any benefits of a service "cannot occur if elements in the delivery system break down along the way." Accordingly, she argues, if librarians are "not willing to accept measures which can point up deficiencies as well as the strengths of our information services, then we should have the integrity to stop discussing measurement and evaluation."(40)

Results and Discussion

As summarized in table 1, we received 45 correct answers to the 231 telephone questions, a success rate of 19.5 percent. Referrals to external sources, such as university libraries or government agencies, were made at a rate of 24.7 percent (57 times). Patrons were asked to come into the library and perform their own research 34.6 percent of the time (80 times). In this category, an initial source internal to the library was suggested about two-thirds of the time; the remainder of the time patrons were simply told to visit the library. Library staff members provided no help at all or checked only their own library OPAC holdings and did not offer any further help 14.7 percent of the time (34 cases). Incorrect or outdated answers were given at a rate of 6.5 percent (15 cases). The five questions identified as specifically government document reference questions were answered correctly 30.5 percent of the time (32 out of 105 cases), while the six questions that were not government document reference questions were answered correctly at a rate of 10.4 percent (13 out of 126 cases).

Of the 57 referrals in this study, we followed 40 (70.2 percent) to some form of resolution. We followed at least one referral for 10 of the 11 questions. Of these 40 referrals, 24 eventually led to a correct answer (60 percent), while 16 referrals did not (40 percent).(41) If, based on these findings, satisfactory referrals are apportioned to the count of correct answers on a 60-percent basis (that is, 34 theoretically successful referrals out of 57 total referrals), library reference staff provided correct answers or initiated a chain of events that led to a correct answer 79 times (45 + 34). From this perspective, the rate of correct responses was 34.2 percent.

Readers interested in the specific methodology followed and results found for each of the eleven questions posed in this study may contact the first author at the following e-mail address:

Unobtrusive studies often receive criticism for the artificiality of the questions asked. But, as Gross pointed out, librarians have long recognized the existence of the "imposed query," as distinct from the self-generated question.(42) Imposed queries occur when a question is asked, negotiated, and "transacted outside the purview of the person originating it."(43) There are numerous instances when imposed queries are asked: school assignments; company projects; and immigrant children sent on missions by their non-English speaking parents, to name just a few.(44) Thus, on the one hand, Gross acknowledged the existence of these types of queries. On the other hand, she suggested that their existence can help to explain low reference success rates, because imposed queries are "subject to various degrees of mutation as they are transferred, transacted, and returned to the [original] imposer."(45) Service evaluation, she stated, has been conducted "on the assumption that questions are self-generated"--a situation where there is no agent between the original imposer of the question and the reference librarian to muddle matters.(46) The existence of the interposing agent therefore makes the job of the reference librarian that much more difficult, resulting in lower success rates. Perhaps unintentionally, Gross established the legitimacy of unobtrusive research on reference service performance by admitting the existence of imposed queries. And, although she believes that these types of questions are complex and given to misinterpretation at each of the various stages of development through which a question goes before it is answered, she does not account for short fact-based questions that could be asked either by members of the public or by trained proxies who are prepared for question negotiation by having a plausible rationale for the question that they are asking.

Accordingly, unobtrusive tests can give valuable insights into the quality of library service. Basing their work, in part, on recent management studies that examined ways to improve quality, Hernon and Altman provided a broad framework for measuring library service quality with the concept of loyalty ratios.(47) This concept allows managers to assess "such important things as the length and strength of customer relationships as measured by the frequency and intensity of library use."(48) Loyalty, furthermore, is influenced by customer requirements, one of which is accuracy. Hernon and Altman pointed to a study of Fortune 1000 executives indicating that "accuracy was the most important factor in determining service quality." In a library setting, accuracy could be measured by such considerations as whether "shelves are regularly read for misplaced or hidden books," whether "items returned are discharged properly so that customers are not charged fines," and whether "answers to reference questions are correct and complete, which means that the library must ensure that information about current situations is kept up to date."(49) Statistics about patron satisfaction should therefore be understood through the prism of work conducted by Johnston, who suggested that "customers who are merely satisfied with a company or service [are] in a zone of indifference toward a continuing relationship with that company or service."(50) Libraries should therefore try to avoid a situation where "library performance is poor and expectations are low, but customers appear indifferent or satisfied."(51)

Accuracy has a way of increasing customer loyalty and generating a positive reputation in the community. As Hernon and Altman argued, libraries are not exempt from this principle. "If libraries fail to retain, maintain, and expand the customer base, they are likely to be in trouble. Getting and keeping customers is what it is all about, and the platitudes about service, education, or imparting of knowledge will not change the need for customers."(52) Reference service success rates on fact-based questions, far from being an unrepresentative measure with little validity, are an important component of ensuring the continued vitality of the library. Patrons who receive poor service during one reference interview situation might think twice about making use of reference service, or any other service, at that same library in the future. Making a mental note about the poor quality of service received on the prior occasion, they might turn elsewhere to resolve their information needs. As Hernon and Altman pointed out in a different context, librarians have begun to complain that "students prefer inferior material in electronic format to better material in the form of hard copy."(53) It is not inconceivable that potential users of a public library, dissatisfied with the service they have received in the past at their library, will attempt to make use of the vast resources of the Web on their own from their homes, even if this results in information that is inferior or incomplete.(54)


The primary purpose of this research study was to examine whether library staff members are paying attention to daily information sources (such as newspapers or magazines). We unobtrusively asked questions dealing with current topics of importance, as reported in major newspapers, of reference desk personnel by telephone. We selected questions requiring a short fact-based answer. There was no way to determine whether the person on duty at the reference desk was a librarian or a paraprofessional. Reference staff provided accurate answers during the initial call or during a call-back at a rate of 19.5 percent. A further 24.7 percent of questions was referred to an external source, and of these referrals 60 percent led eventually to correct answers. Consequently, library reference staff either provided correct answers themselves or initiated a chain of events that led to a correct answer at a rate of 34.2 percent. Patrons were told to visit the library 34.6 percent of the time. No matter which way success rates were measured, library reference staff performed at a level substantially below the findings in other unobtrusive reference studies.

Only two of the eleven reference questions listed in Appendix A were answered correctly at a rate close to or above 50 percent (the gas additive MMT and the Nisga'a treaty questions). The common feature of these questions was that both dealt with topics that had not only been in the news for a prolonged period of time, but also were featured prominently on the front pages of newspapers. The fact that about 50 percent of library reference staff were able to answer these two questions is an indication that at least some library workers realize the importance of keeping up with current news--with stories that are given extremely prominent coverage--as part of the array of their tasks. However, numerous other types of plausible reference questions could be answered quickly and efficiently by library reference workers were they to devote time and energy to a regular and complete perusal of such daily information sources as newspapers and periodicals. While the study was not meant to yield an overall appraisal of the quality of telephone reference service in Canada, it does give an indication of the general knowledge and current awareness level of personnel at public libraries who are responsible for fielding questions from members of the general public.

The relatively low level of current affairs knowledge among library workers, as manifested by their inability to expeditiously answer the questions posed in this study, can be explained by at least three reasons. First, newspapers and periodicals might not be taught as valuable sources of information and reference tools in reference courses at schools of library and information science. Based on our study, teachers of reference courses at library schools may wish to reconsider this lacuna when they prepare syllabi in the future.

Second, the habit of reading newspapers and periodicals as part of being a well- and broadly educated individual might be outmoded. Barringer reported that paid newspaper circulation in the United States during 1997-98 declined by 11 percent from a 1984 peak of 63.3 million readers.(55) Numerous reasons have been advanced for such a decline: time pressures; increased diversity of entertainment choices; the rise of more immediately-available news through twenty-four-hour news broadcast channels; and the explosion of Web-based news sources. From our perspective, if members of the public are reading fewer newspapers and periodicals than in the past, professional librarians should become more familiar with these information sources.

Third, Harris and Marshall noted that budgetary constraints have forced many academic libraries to replace professional library reference staff with para-professionals.(56) Hernon and Altman also recognized this phenomenon, and specifically linked it to poor service quality: "Despite a rather low percentage of accuracy in answering questions, many libraries, both academic and public, on the grounds of economy, regularly staff reference desks, especially on evenings and weekends, with students and library assistants."(57) Paraprofessionals working at reference desks can be even less cognizant of the value of current news information sources than professional librarians. In addition, it might often be the case that the most experienced reference librarians are promoted into management positions that take them away from front-line public service work. Library administrators might wish to structure work arrangements and schedules in such a way that experienced personnel who have management responsibilities remain involved directly with the delivery of public service functions such as reference work. Another solution, implemented by Texas A&M University, is to establish standards and "baseline competencies for the humanities, science, and the social sciences" that have to be met by any reference personnel before they are allowed to work without supervision.(58) Also worthy of consideration is a rigorous certification and a regular recertification process for librarians, along the lines of what an increasing number of state governments are demanding for elementary and high-school teachers.(59)

We also found during this study that referrals were successful at a rate of 60 percent. However, this figure was achieved only because the investigators made many expensive long-distance telephone calls during regular business hours to far-flung locales. In this regard, library personnel should keep two things in mind. First, if statistics are kept about reference completion rates, referrals should not be counted automatically as a satisfactory conclusion to a reference inquiry. Based on the findings of this study, referrals lead to correct answers about 60 percent of the time, and library statistics that do not take this into consideration might not give an accurate picture of the proficiency of reference service. Second, many patrons might not be able to afford long-distance calls to locate a specific piece of information, and so the referral success rate can be even lower than the figures indicate here. Library reference personnel might wish to consider all local possibilities before making a referral that involves the expenditure of money by the patron.

Patrons have many reasons for making a telephone reference inquiry rather than a physical visit to the library. Certainly, many patrons could come into the library, but there are just as many patrons who are unable to visit the library. They might be strapped for time, or they might be unable to get to the library because of physical constraints or the lack of transportation. In these instances, a reference staff member who suggests that a patron come into the library to look for an answer might not be offering a real alternative. In the study reported here, 36.4 percent of telephone reference inquiries ended in the patron being told to visit the library. In light of this, Canadian public libraries may wish to consider instituting a telephone reference system of the kind Tour described, when visiting the library to get an answer is not a requirement.(60)

Public libraries that provide accurate telephone reference service to current events questions at a rate of either 19.5 percent (not counting referrals) or 34.2 percent (counting successful referrals) might not be offering the public real value for its tax dollar. In the current value-added economic environment, library reference staff should challenge themselves to make a strong commitment to an ongoing self-education program, a component of which should be maintaining a high level of current awareness about significant issues of the day. Otherwise, there is a danger that public library reference work, long known for its service and care ethic, will be seen as expenable and replaceable by what Heckart broadly described as "machine help" and which, as outlined by Richardson, is already available in the form of a Web-based decision support system for ready-reference questions.(61) And, although Richardson described this system, called Question Master, as a tool that would "free up the valuable time of reference librarians so that it could be spent answering the more demanding research-type questions," it is not hard to see that Web-based intelligent technology of this type can just as easily be used from the home as from the library.(62) This is a circumstance that does not augur well for the continued vitality of the public library as an indispensable community source of information staffed by knowledgeable, service-oriented, and caring library professionals who take pride in their abilities and work.

Related Papers

Weed to Achieve: A Fundamental Part of the Public Library Mission
Why You Should Read the Papers: Improving Reference Service in Public Libraries
What Patrons Say About Library Staff When Asking Government Documents Reference Questions at Depository Libraries
Government Documents Reference Service in Canada: A Nationwide Unobtrusive Study of Public and Academic Depository Libraries
The Challenge of Building Multilingual Collections in Canadian Public Libraries


1. James I. Wyer, Reference Work: A Textbook for Students of Library Work and Librarians (Chicago: ALA, 1930), 120-21.

2. Margaret Hutchins, Introduction to Reference Work (Chicago: ALA, 1944), 103.

3. Ibid., 103.

4. Ibid., 69.

5. Katherine G. Harris, "Reference Service Today and Tomorrow: Objectives, Practices, Needs, and Trends," Journal of Education for Librarianship 3 (Winter 1963): 175-87.

6. Ibid., 184. Harris is quoting Mary E. Poole, "What is Reference Work?," Library Journal 85 (Apr. 15, 1960): 1522-24.

7. William A. Katz, Introduction to Reference Work, volume II: Reference Services (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), 19-20. Katz relies on the 1961 report Reference Service in American Public Libraries Serving Populations of 10,000 or More (Univ. of Illinois Occasional Papers, Mar. 1961) as well as the following two articles: "Talent Show," RQ 3 (Winter 1965): 37; Eric Moon, "Reference Vagaries," Library Journal 89 (Apr. 15, 1964): 1,698.

8. Continuing Library Education Network and Exchange Round Table, ALA, Self-Assessment Guide for Reference (St. Paul, Minn.: Off. of Library Development Svcs., 1986), 6.

9. Rochelle Yates, A Librarian's Guide to Telephone Reference Service (Hamden, Conn.: Library Prof. Pubs., Shoe String Pr.), 40.

10. Charles D'Aniello, "Cultural Literacy and Reference Service, RQ 28 (Spring 1989): 370-80. See also Margaret Stieg, "Continuing Education and the Reference Librarian in the Academic and Research Library," Library Journal 105 (Dec. 15, 1980): 2547-51; Jacques Barzun, "The New Librarian to the Rescue," Library Journal 94 (Nov. 1, 1969): 3963-65; Jacques Barzun, "The Scholar Looks at the Library," College and Research Libraries 7 (Apr. 1946): 113-17.

11. John Charles and Shelley Mosely, "Keeping Selection In-house," Library Journal 122 (Mar. 15, 1997): 30.

12. James Newsome and Claire McInerney, "Environmental Scanning and the Information Manager," Special Libraries 81 (Fall 1990): 285-93.

13. J. F. Cove and B. C. Walsh, "Browsing as a Means of On-line Text Retrieval," Information Services & Use 7 (1987): 183-88.

14. Chun Wei Choo, "Perception and Use of Information Sources by Chief Executives in Environmental Scanning," Library & Information Science Research 16 (Winter 1994): 23-40. See also Chun Wei Choo and Ethel Auster, "Scanning the Business Environment: Acquisition and Use of Information by Managers," in Annual Review of Information Science and Technology 28, ed. M. E. Williams (Medford, N.J.: Learned Information for ASIS, 1993), 279-314.

15. Choo, "Perception and Use," 38.

16. Leigh Buchanan, "The Smartest Little Company in America," Inc. 21 (Jan. 1999): 42-54.

17. Ibid., 43.

18. Ibid., 54.

19. Alasdair Kemp, Current Awareness Services (London: Clive Bingley, 1979), 21-22.

20. Brian Quinn, "Improving the Quality of Telephone Reference Service," Reference Services Review 23 (Winter 1995): 39-49.

21. Ibid., 40.

22. Daniel R. Smith, "Collection Development for Telephone Reference," The Georgian Librarian 30 (Winter 1993): 64-67.

23. Debra E. Tour, "Quest Line (Telephone Reference): A Different Approach to Reference Service," Public Libraries 37 (Jul./Aug. 1997): 256-58.

24. Ibid., 257.

25. Ibid., 256.

26. Frank R. Allan and Rita H. Smith, "A Survey of Telephone Inquiries: Case Study and Operational Impact in an Academic Library Reference Department," RQ 32 (Spring 1993): 382-91.

27. Deborah C. Duke, "'Night Owl': Maryland's After-Hours Reference Service," Public Libraries 33 (May/June 1994): 145-48.

28. Mary Lee Bundy and others, "Public Library Reference Service: Myth and Reality," Public Library Quarterly, 3 (Fall 1982): 11-22; Thomas Childers, Telephone Information Service in Public Libraries: A Comparison of Performance and the Descriptive Statistics Collected by the State of New Jersey (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Rutgers Univ., 1970); Terence Crowley, The Effectiveness of Information Service in Medium Size Public Libraries (Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Rutgers Univ., 1968); Marcia J. Myers and Jassim M. Jirjees, The Accuracy of Telephone Reference/Information Services in Academic Libraries: Two Studies (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1983).

29. Beth Paskoff, "Accuracy of Telephone Reference Service in Health Science Libraries," Bulletin of the Medical Library Association 79 (Apr. 1991): 182-88.

30. Duke, "Night Owl," 146.

31. Juris Dilevko and Elizabeth Dolan, Government Documents Reference Service in Canada: Implications for Electronic Access (Ottawa, Canada: Public Works and Govt. Svcs. Canada, 1999).

32. Childers, Telephone Information Service in Public Libraries, 40, 125-26.

33. Charles R. McClure and Peter Hernon, Improving the Quality of Reference Service for Government Publications (Chicago: ALA, 1983). McClure and Hernon provide a good synopsis of this criticism in Peter Hernon and Charles R. McClure, Unobtrusive Testing and Library Reference Services (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1987), 165-70.

34. Joan C. Durrance, "Reference Success: Does the 55 Percent Rule Tell the Whole Story?" Library Journal 114 (Apr. 15, 1989): 31-36; David A. Tyckoson, "Wrong Questions, Wrong Answers: Behavioral vs. Factual Evaluation of Reference Service," The Reference Librarian 38 (1992): 151-73.

35. June D. Parker, "Evaluating Documents Reference Service and the Implications for Improvement," Journal of Government Information 23 (Jan./Feb. 1996): 49-70; Carolyn W. Jardine, "Maybe the 55 Percent Rule Doesn't Tell the Whole Story: A User-Satisfaction Survey," College & Research Libraries 56 (Nov. 1995): 477-85.

36. Patricia Hults, "Reference Evaluation: An Overview," The Reference Librarian 38 (1992): 141-50.

37. Ibid., 143.

38. Ellen Altman, "Assessment of Reference Services," in The Service Imperative for Libraries: Essays in Honor of Margaret E. Monroe, ed. Gail A. Schlachter (Littleton, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 1982), 169-85.

39. Ibid., 175.

40. Ibid., 181-82.

41. Successful referrals were: CIA and Bay of Pigs (seven); native artifacts (five); gasoline additive MMT (five); architect of National Museum of American Indian (three); black credit unions (two); abandoned Newfoundland communities (one); and sailing solo around the world (one). Unsuccessful referrals were: endangered plant species (seven); abandoned Newfoundland communities (four); Ritalin statistics (three); sailing solo around the world (one); and golf and CEOs (one).

42. Melissa Gross, "The Imposed Query," RQ 35 (Winter 1995): 236-43.

43. Ibid., 237.

44. Melissa Gross, "The Imposed Query: Implications for Library Service Evaluation," Reference & User Services Quarterly 37 (Spring 1998): 290-99.

45. Ibid., 291; Gross, "The Imposed Query," 242.

46. Gross, "The Imposed Query: Implications for Library Service Evaluation," 291.

47. Peter Hernon and Ellen Altman, Assessing Service Quality: Satisfying the Expectations of Library Customers (Chicago: ALA, 1998).

48. Ibid., 150.

49. Ibid., 176-77.

50. Catharine G. Johnston, Beyond Customer Satisfaction to Loyalty (Ottawa, Canada: The Conference Board of Canada, 1996), 7. Quoted in Hernon and Altman, Assessing Service Quality, 149.

51. Hernon and Altman, Assessing Service Quality, 15.

52. Ibid., 178.

53. Ibid., 148.

54. Another promising idea for putting a true value on reference service is described in David W. Harless and Frank R. Allen, "Using the Contingent Valuation Method to Measure Patron Benefits of Reference Desk Service in an Academic Library," College & Research Libraries 60 (Jan. 1999): 56-69. And even though this article specifically applies to academic libraries, it can also be useful for public libraries. Harless and Allen suggest that the concept of use value must be supplemented by trying to quantify the value of reference services "to potential users who place value on the option of seeking assistance in the event they desire such services" (67). In addition, it is necessary to ask not just actual users of reference services, but random members of the entire community served, whether or not they have used reference services at the library in the past.

55. Felicity Barringer, "Paid Newspaper Circulation in U.S. Continues to Decline," New York Times (Nov. 3, 1998), C7 [National].

56. Roma M. Harris and Victoria Marshall, "Reorganizing Canadian Libraries: A Giant Step Back from the Front," Library Trends 46 (Winter 1998): 564-80.

57. Hernon and Altman, Assessing Service Quality, 177.

58. Ibid., 177.

59. Randal C. Archibold, "Getting Tough on Teachers," New York Times Education Life (Nov. 1, 1998): 22-25, 30-31.

60. Tour, "Quest Line," 256-58.

61. Ronald J. Heckart, "Machine Help and Human Help in the Emerging Digital Library," College & Research Libraries 59 (May 1998): 250-59; John V. Richardson Jr., "Question Master: An Evaluation of a Web-based Decision-support System for Use in Reference Environments," College & Research Libraries 59 (Jan. 1998): 29-37.

62. Ibid., 30.

Appendix A: Questions Used in the Study

The eleven questions used in this study are listed below. Following each question are (1) bibliographical information about the news story and (2) an indication of government reference focus (government reference questions = [G], not government reference = [NG], and could be but wasn't within the purview of government departments = [G-NG].

* Do you know where I could find a copy of the official CIA report about the Bay of Pigs? ("C.I.A. Bares Own Bungling in '61 Report on Bay of Pigs," New York Times, Feb. 22, 1998, A1, A6; "Secret report blames CIA for Bay of Pigs fiasco," The Globe and Mail, Feb. 23, 1998, A11.) [G]

* Can you give me some information about whether the musical work Symphony No. 3 by the British composer Sir Edward Elgar has ever been finished? ("A Change of Heart Brings a New Elgar Work," New York Times, Mar. 12, 1998, B1, B9; "Pomp and circumstance," The Globe and Mail, Mar. 14, 1998, C17.) [NG]

* Can you tell me the name of the architect for the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC? ("Museum of the Indian Drops Its Designer," New York Times, Apr. 4, 1998, A13, A15; "Cardinal ignores dismissal notice," The Globe and Mail, Apr. 7, 1998, C1, C2.) [G]

* Could you provide me with any kind of list of all the plants that are endangered globally? ("One in Every 8 Plant Species Is Imperiled, a Survey Finds," New York Times, April 9, 1998, A1, A22; "Plant species threat cited," The Globe and Mail, Apr. 9, 1998, A15.) [G]

* Has there ever been a credit union owned by blacks in Canada? If so, could you provide me with some details? ("A community loses its line of credit," The Globe and Mail, May 1, 1998, A2.) [NG]

* Do you know of any publication that provides a list of abandoned communities (towns, villages, outports) in Newfoundland? ("What's lost and what's in danger," The Globe and Mail, May 4, 1998, A13 [op-ed page].) [G-NG]

* Are there any statistics available on how many children have been using Ritalin in Quebec in the last few years? ("Ritalin raises alarm in Quebec," The Globe and Mail, May 27, 1998, A1, A5.) [G-NG]

* Are you aware of any studies that link how well CEOs of companies play golf with how well their companies perform on the stock market? ("Duffers Need Not Apply," New York Times, May 31, 1998, Section 3, p. 1+; "Study links golf to great returns," The Globe and Mail, Jun. 2, 1998, B12.) [NG]

* Can you give me some information about the first person to circumnavigate the world solo? ("A hero except back home," The Globe and Mail, Jul. 17, 1998, A2; "Canada's own ancient mariner," The Globe and Mail, Jul. 18, 1998, D16 [front page of weekend book section].) [NG]

* Could you give me some information as to whether it is legal to sell the manganese-based gasoline octane booster MMT in Canada? ("Threat of NAFTA case kills Canada's MMT ban," The Globe and Mail, Jul. 20, 1998, A1, A5; "Gas war: the fall and rise of MMT," The Globe and Mail, Jul. 24, 1998, A1, A5.) [G]

* I'd like some information about the approximate number of native artifacts that have to be returned by Canadian museums under the terms of the Nisga'a treaty with the federal government and British Columbia. ("A time for giving back," The Globe and Mail, Aug. 1, 1998, C1, C8.) [G]

Copyright © 2023 Moya K. Mason, All Rights Reserved

Back to: Resume and More Papers