Why You Should Read the Papers: Improving Reference Service in Public Libraries

by Juris Dilevko and Moya K. Mason

Published in Public Libraries v. 39 no. 2 (March/April 2000) p. 85-97.

Reading newspapers can be a valuable way for public library reference staff to continually update their knowledge on a wide range of issues of potential interest to patrons. A recent study in Canada revealed that reference staff are not making use of this relatively inexpensive continuing education tool. Staff members who are not paying attention to current news may, therefore, be providing a level of service that is not as good as it could be.

Questions asked by patrons at public library reference desks are, to say the least, novel and varied. There seems to be no limit to the number of topics and subjects about which library staff are asked to provide guidance on a daily basis. The overwhelming amount of new information generated in all fields of study and in all areas of interest each week is staggering. Public library reference personnel often feel stretched to the limit as they try to deal with a myriad of information requests. Is there a way to get a better grasp of constantly changing national and world events, to stay abreast of rapidly evolving scientific, medical, legal, and technological developments, to understand the broad issues behind financial and economic fluctuations, and to feel comfortable about significant cultural developments? After all, public library reference staff never know what kind of question the next patron will ask.

Librarians in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s were provided with specific guidance about keeping up with current events. The preferred method was reading newspapers and periodicals. Frank Keller Walter, in an address to the graduating class of the Wisconsin Library School in 1925, urged librarians to not only promote reading among the public, but also to realize that in self-defense the librarian too must read if she wishes to succeed. More specifically, to keep up with the pace of world events, he recommended that, one often must get out of the current to see the progress of the stream and to notice that it is the stream and not the banks which moves. Continuing his analogy, he suggested that, because "information is the real water of life to the mind, it is most often in books, in magazines and newspapers that one can get the best perspective of social progress in the limited periods of ... leisure" [available to the librarian].(1) James Wyer, in his 1930 Reference Work, 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."(2) Margaret Hutchins, in her 1944 Introduction to Reference Work, urges reference staff to constantly read newspapers and periodicals because often the librarian is at fault in failing to keep himself informed on current affairs and technical subjects. Hutchins believes that a reference librarian seen scanning newspapers and periodicals is not passing his hours in a light and frivolous manner. "He is producing in his own mind rolls of films of page setups so that when a question comes on a topic on which he recalls having seen something recently, he remembers how it looked on the page and how the publication felt in his [or her] hands and what publication it is that has those characteristics, and so he [or she] can say, Oh, yes, I saw that in the Survey yesterday."(3)

Recent reference handbooks and journal articles, however, fail to stress the utility of systematically perusing newspapers or magazines, whether in print or in electronic format, as indispensable sources of general knowledge. One exception is Charles D'Aniello, who emphasizes the importance of cultural literacy for reference librarianship, and suggests that one way that public service librarians can acquire a generalized cultural vocabulary is to regularly read newspapers and news magazines as well as such critical book reviews as The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review.(4) Moreover, he explicitly makes the connection between cultural literacy and the ability of librarians to interpret queries and offer detailed advice and answers. Nevertheless, his article concentrates on the utility of librarians being familiar with E. D. Hirsch's 1987 book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Yet, the content of newspapers is rich beyond belief, and provides a constant updating of cultural, social, political, economic, and historical information.

For example, consider two of the best examples of American journalism: The New York Times and Washington Post. In addition to thoughtful coverage of events in far-flung locales of the country and the world, each has special separate weekly sections on science, technology, and literature. There is in-depth coverage of Supreme Court decisions and substantial coverage of congressional activities, from subcommittee reports, to voting patterns, to the influence of lobbyists on pending legislation. Their Sunday editions are overflowing with significant cultural news from the worlds of dance, music, architecture, theater, and art. Overview sections about economic, political, and social developments attempt to provide a historical perspective to recent events. Of course, not everyone reads these two major national papers, but stories originating in The New York Times and Washington Post are, in abbreviated fashion, very often picked up by wire service agencies and appear in local papers throughout the country. In addition, they often form the basis of television news broadcasts. Accordingly, news stories appearing in local newspapers or on local news shows frequently are prompters of a wide range of reference questions, and just as frequently, the wealth of details contained in The New York Times or Washington Post can serve as a rich resource for answering such questions.

The purpose of this article is to examine whether library reference staff are cognizant of newspapers as a potential source of reference information. The article also explores what happens when library staff members make referrals, since a referral is often a sign that reference staff members do not know the answer to a question themselves. In other words, we wanted to know what the typical library patron would be faced with when trying to track down recent information. Did public library reference staff appear competent, knowledgeable, and up-to-date, as represented by their familiarity with current national and world issues, or were they, instead, less than prepared to meet the challenge of keeping up with, and being aware of, significant developments in a variety of areas?


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. In Canada The Globe and Mail serves the same function as The New York Times in the United States. Within one week of the appearance of each story, we telephoned the central branches of the public libraries in the twenty most populous metropolitan areas in the English-speaking provinces, as identified by Statistics Canada, with a reference question based on each of the eleven news stories. The largest public libraries 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. There are two large public libraries in Toronto, but only one large public library in all of the other metropolitan areas called, and thus twenty-one public libraries were called eleven times each. In sum, 231 questions were asked unobtrusively. Responses received from library personnel were recorded manually during and immediately after each telephone conversation, and then transcribed. Conversations were not taped. 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.

Stories were selected based on a combination of 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. Prominence was defined in the following ways. A selected story appeared either on the first two pages of the entire newspaper, the front page of any of the major sections, 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 eleven questions were:

  1. Do you know where I could find a copy of the official CIA report about the Bay of Pigs?
  2. 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?
  3. Can you tell me the name of the architect for the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.?
  4. Could you provide me with any kind of list of all the plants that are endangered globally?
  5. Has there ever been a black-owned credit union in Canada? If so, could you provide me with some details?
  6. Do you know of any publication that provides a list of abandoned communities (towns, villages, outports) in Newfoundland?
  7. Are there any statistics available on how many children have been using Ritalin in Québec in the last few years?
  8. 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?
  9. Can you give me some information about the first person to circumnavigate the world solo?
  10. Could you give me some information as to whether it is legal to sell the managanese-based gasoline octane booster MMT in Canada?
  11. 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.


Only forty-five correct answers were received 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 (fifty-seven times). Patrons were asked to come into the library and perform their own research 34.6 percent of the time (eighty times). In this category, an initial (often vague) 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 (thirty-four cases). Incorrect or outdated answers were given at a rate of 6.5 percent (fifteen cases).

Forty of the fifty-seven referrals (70.2 percent) were followed to some form of resolution. At least one referral was followed for ten of the eleven questions. Of these forty referrals, twenty-four eventually led to a correct answer (60 percent), while sixteen referrals did not do so (40 percent). If, based on these findings, satisfactory referrals are apportioned to the count of correct answers on a 60 percent basis (that is, thirty-four theoretically successful referrals out of fifty-seven total referrals), library reference staff provided correct answers or initiated a chain of events that led to a correct answer seventy-nine times (45 + 34). From this perspective the rate of correct responses was 34.2 percent. Further discussion about the implications of these results for public library reference service appears in Reference User Services Quarterly.(5)

More interesting than a mere tabulation of success rates is the cumulative account of how public library reference staff dealt with, or did not deal with, each question. The overall picture reveals reference personnel who are not knowledgeable about recent national and world developments, who often treat patrons rudely, and who offer only cursory help in the form of vague referrals or general directions to sources that may, or may not, contain the desired information. Of particular interest for reference staff should be the description of the numerous steps we sometimes had to go through trying to follow referrals we received at the public library. In sum, patrons deserved better.


The release by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of its own report on the 1961 Bay of Pigs misadventure was a major news story in both the United States and Canada in the latter part of February 1998. Both The New York Times and The Globe and Mail carried lengthy stories about this report, officially entitled The Inspector General's Survey of the Cuban Operation. The final paragraphs of each story noted that it was released under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act to the National Security Archive, which collects and publishes declassified government documents. Both news stories also provided the Web address of the CIA report, and The New York Times carried extracts. A correct answer to this reference question was defined as one that mentioned the Web address or referred to the media coverage of the report.

The most common responses received to this question were referrals to university libraries or to the CIA itself. Each type of referral occurred five times. Two library staff members suggested calling the American embassy, while another said that such information could only be accessed through a special petition made under the Freedom of Information Act. Another staff person suggested taking a trip to a border city in the United States, because someone in that city is bound to help you. Referrals made to the CIA and the American embassy were followed up. Both referrals turned out to be useful, since staff members were able to identify the location of the document. Personnel in the Media and Cultural Affairs department of the American embassy recommended the CIA Web site, and provided the correct Web address. An individual in the Public Affairs department of the CIA also stated that the report was available on its Web site.

More troubling were the responses received from library personnel at six libraries who had no idea about the question. Some were plainly rude, and treated the request as a far-fetched joke. Others did not even bother to check their holdings, replying immediately that they could not help. One reference staff member sarcastically mentioned that Canadian libraries are not to be confused with American government depository libraries, and implied that this question was a waste of time. Another reference staff member said she was flabbergasted by the question, and was certain that such a report was unavailable.

Another library staff member, while providing the address of CIA director George Tenet in Washington, was rather condescending in his approach, explaining that big shot George would have a secretary who opened his mail [and that this person] would probably pass [the] request on to a more suitable person. During another call, the reference person consulted with a colleague, and both were heard to be laughing in the background about this weird request. The person taking the call then returned, and suggested calling the CIA without giving a phone number. Although a firm conclusion cannot be made about these two calls, the general impression left by these two telephone interviews was that both reference workers were providing the CIA address as an attempt to humor the patron and complete the call as quickly as possible. In other words, they were not treating the information request seriously. When all is said and done, this was a question about the location of a declassified government document that had received wide media coverage. Indeed, the one library staff member who was able to provide information about the report had seen a story about it on the television show Hard Copy.


Sir Edward Elgar, upon his death, left behind unfinished fragments of his Third Symphony with the injunction that these rough drafts be burned, or at the very least, never be tinkered with. However, the contemporary British composer Anthony Payne persuaded Elgar's descendants to let him attempt to finish the symphony. The reason for the decision to go against Elgar's wishes was that the unfinished musical sketches had been published in 1936, and would, consequently, pass into the public domain in 2004 after copyright expiration. Thus, anyone could try to complete the symphony. Family members were thus more willing to entrust the sketches to a scholar with a wide musical background and proven dedication to Elgar. In February 1998 the BBC Symphony performed what was referred to in the program as the Elgar/Payne Symphony No. 3 to almost universal critical acclaim. Again, the news about Elgar's now-finished masterpiece was given extensive press coverage.

The most common step taken by library reference staff when faced with the question about the finished or unfinished state of Elgar's symphony was to consult either the New Grove Dictionary of Composers or the Oxford Dictionary of Music. Reference staff members in twelve libraries chose this approach, while another library worker used a biography of Elgar. Accordingly, the answer provided by all thirteen libraries--that the symphony was unfinished and existed only in sketches--was incorrect. Here, then, is a situation where accessible ready reference tools are outdated. Hutchins stressed the importance for library staff to institute policies about updating information. One method that may help reference personnel to provide the most current information is to scan newspapers on a regular basis, keeping an eye out for facts that may supersede information contained in standard reference tools, and then write the correct answer in the appropriate source with the date of the notation so that all other reference staff may be aware of the change.


At the beginning of April 1998 the Smithsonian announced a controversial change in the design team for the National Museum of the American Indian. The contract of Douglas Cardinal, a prominent Canadian architect of Blackfoot ancestry, and his collaborators, GBQC Architects of Philadelphia, was terminated because of delays and disagreements over the delivery of working and technical drawings. Smithsonian officials emphasized that they were more than pleased with Cardinal's conception and vision for the museum, but that, to complete the project on time and within the parameters of a tight budget wholly dependent on Congressional appropriations, the architectural team had to be replaced. The Smithsonian hired another set of architects--James Stewart Polshek and Partners as well as Tobey and Davis--to conduct a peer review of the project. Reports were rampant that Polshek's appointment was a precursor to his taking over the project. Cardinal was given until the end of April 1998 to appeal his dismissal, and it was apparent that he intended to mount a strong challenge to remain the architect of the National Museum of the American Indian. Native groups, both in Canada and the United States, gave Cardinal unequivocal support, asserting that the Smithsonian's action was tantamount to letting someone [else] finish your painting. Since Cardinal is Canadian and designed the much-praised Museum of Civilization in Hull, Québec, the story received wide coverage in Canada.

A correct answer to this question was defined as one which took into account the existence of a controversy connected with the identity of the architect. Five library reference staff members provided correct answers; they identified Cardinal as the original architect but also stated that he had just been fired and that another architectural team was now assigned to the project. One library identified Cardinal after a quick search, but did not mention any controversy about the National Museum of the American Indian. By far the most frequent response to this question was to urge the caller to come into the library and look at books or magazine and periodical indexes. Three libraries offered no help whatsoever, and one of these stated that they could not be expected to help because they were not architectural specialists.

Three referrals were made. One was to the Smithsonian, another was to the tourist bureau in Washington, D. C., and a final referral suggested that any architect in town would know the answer. These referrals were followed up. We selected, at random, from the Yellow Pages directory of a major city in Canada, the name of an architectural firm. The company's advertisements stated that it had been in business for over forty years. While the individual who answered our call did not know the answer to the question, he suggested that we use the Yellow Pages directory on the Internet by selecting Washington as the required city and the National Museum of the American Indian as the required business or institution. Once we acquired the phone number of the museum, someone would be sure to provide us with the necessary answer.

We also called the Tourist Bureau of Washington. Since the library worker who made this referral did not provide a phone number, we first called long-distance directory assistance. We were given a number that, unfortunately, turned out to be the Tourist Bureau in Chicago. The Chicago office provided us with the correct number of the Washington Convention and Visitors Association, who recommended calling the Smithsonian and gave a number for its Public Information Line. Here, we were told to call the Smithsonian Office of Public Programs, which in turn directed us to call the Public Affairs Department at the National Museum of the American Indian. Here, finally, a very polite individual informed us that the design architect was indeed Douglas Cardinal, but that he and GBQC of Philadelphia had been terminated as working architects. Although all three referrals eventually led to a correct answer, the number of steps needed to reach this answer might prove daunting and expensive, from the standpoint of long-distance charges, to some individuals.


In April 1998 the World Conservation Union released a list of nearly 34,000 plants species endangered globally. The result of more than twenty years of work by botanists and biologists around the world, the so-called Red List contains more than 750 pages of plant names divided into five categories. Endangered plants make up some 12.5 percent of the world's known species of plants, and the United States harbors 29 percent of all these imperiled species. Front-page coverage of the report's release in The New York Times and a same-day reprint in The Globe and Mail meant that this story would receive broad coverage in other media outlets across North America. The Globe and Mail also printed the Web address of the World Conservation Union.

Five library reference staff provided the correct answer, defined as telling the patron the existence of the Red List. Three specifically mentioned The Globe and Mail report, while another one had heard about it on ABC World News Tonight. Six libraries urged the patron to come into the library and conduct research, although some in this category doubted that anything could be found on such a broad topic. Three reference personnel simply had no idea, and seven libraries made referrals to various government departments or environmental action groups. Two referrals were made to the general Reference Canada (RC) information line, two more were made to Environment Canada, another was to Agricultural Canada, yet another was to any government department, and a final referral was to the Canadian Wildlife Federation (CWF).

Again, we followed these referrals. The CWF informed us that no such list was available for plants endangered on a worldwide basis, but that they could provide a list of endangered animals in Canada. They also suggested calling the World Wildlife Fund at a toll-free number. We followed their advice, and were informed, again, that no such list existed, but they offered to send us a brochure listing all endangered fish, animal, bird, and plant species in Canada. Some weeks later we received the publication List of Canadian Wildlife at Risk: Your Guide to Protecting the Web of Life. The following categories of at-risk Canadian plants were contained in the brochure: two extirpated (found elsewhere, but no longer in Canada); thirty-three endangered; thirty-seven threatened; thirty-eight vulnerable; and twenty-two in a recovery plan.

We also followed up the referrals to federal government agencies. The RC information line gave us the number for the local Environmental Conservation Branch of the Canadian Wildlife Service, and assured us that this office was open during regular business hours. Repeated calls to this number were made, but the only response was voice-mail messages stating that no one was in the office at this time. Messages to return our calls were left, but no answer was received. We called RC back, explained the above situation, and were then given a number for the Environment Enforcement Coordinator. This number, however, proved to be the number for a local home cleaning service. We again called RC, and this time they gave us a toll-free number for Environment Canada in the National Capital Region of Ottawa-Hull. The first person we spoke to here informed us that there was no such international list, but that he could provide us with a list of plants and animals that cannot be imported into, or exported from, Canada. After repeating our request about plant species, he transferred us to another individual. This person, who was on the Committee on the Status of Endangered Species and Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), informed us, predictably, that an international list of threatened plant species did not exist, but that there was a list specifically for Canada. This list contained thirty-two vascular plants and one lichen species. Names of these plants were available at their Web site. Since we were unsuccessful in the above instances, we tried again by phoning an alternate number given to us by RC, this time in Toronto. Yet again we were told that Environment Canada had no such list, but that perhaps Agricultural Canada could help. We were consequently transferred to the Pest Management Service, but this turned out to be a department of Health Canada rather than Agricultural Canada. They had no knowledge about endangered plant species.

Unlike the referrals for the CIA Bay of Pigs report and the name of the architect for the National Museum of the American Indian, referrals for this question did not eventually lead to a satisfactory resolution of the initial information need. A referral by library reference personnel to the RC information line may seem like a simple solution when faced with what appear to be government documents' reference questions, but the experiences described above suggest that many difficulties lie ahead for individuals who attempt to retrieve from official Canadian government sources information that is not specifically produced by the Canadian government. In this case about endangered plant species, library personnel who had paid attention to the news about the publication of the Red List could have obviated many of the frustrations connected with a very general and broad referral.


At the beginning of May 1998 The Globe and Mail reported the liquidation of the only black-owned financial institution in Canada. The George Washington Carver Credit Union was founded in 1950 by Moses Coady in East Preston, Nova Scotia, a rural municipality just outside Dartmouth. This institution was entirely run by volunteers. Unable to increase its deposit base beyond $300,000, it could not offer such services as checking accounts, automated teller machines, or large business loans. Loan losses in the early 1990s resulted in growing debts, and the credit union was forced to close.

Four library reference desks provided the correct answer to this question, and three of these mentioned that they had read something about this in a recent newspaper or periodical account. Another four libraries had absolutely no idea, and offered no further suggestions. Nine libraries recommended that the patron come in and consult such diverse sources as magazine and periodical indexes, CD-ROM databases, the entries under credit unions or blacks in The Canadian Encyclopedia, general history books about the black experience in Canada, or to try looking in a history of credit unions if there is such a thing--we don't have anything like that in our database. Three referrals were made, two of which were subsequent to a library staff person checking the Directory of Associations in Canada under the heading credit unions. In both instances the name and number of a specific person at the Credit Union Institute of Canada who might know the answer was provided. We called this person, and were indeed provided not only with the name of the black credit union in question, but also the name and number of the outgoing chief executive officer, in case more information was required. One lesson here may be that the more specific the referral, the greater the chance of acquiring needed information.


A popular daily feature on the op-ed page of The Globe and Mail is a column devoted to less well known aspects of life in various Canadian provinces. In early May 1998 this column contained an account of efforts in Newfoundland to take stock of the villages, outports, and towns that had to be abandoned for reasons of unsustainability, mostly connected with the vicissitudes of the fishing industry and governmental resettlement policies aimed at economic diversification. In the past five years, interest in rural Newfoundland life has shown a marked increase across North America, the result, in part, of the success of such best-selling novels as E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News and Howard Norman's The Bird Artist. In Canada, of course, Newfoundland constantly appears in the news, whether because of the recent discovery of massive nickel deposits at Voisey's Bay, the offshore oil reserves at Hibernia, or the stubborn refusal of fishers to abandon their traditional way of life despite the troubled state of the east coast cod stocks. The book detailing abandoned communities in Newfoundland, by Tor Fosnaes, is called Where Once They Stood: A Gazetteer of Abandonment, and lists some 340 locations.

No library was able to provide a correct answer. By far the most common response by library workers was that they simply had no idea about the question. This occurred nine times, and on four of these occasions, reference staff told the patron to call back when a part of the title of the book or the author's name was known. Six libraries recommended that the patron visit the library, and three of these made mention of a specific book or encyclopedia title. Six referrals were made. Two of these were to university libraries, two were to the Newfoundland government information line, and two were to major bookstores.

We followed up all these referrals. A correct answer to the question was received from the Center for Newfoundland Studies (CNS). CNS staff also provided a mailing address through which the book could be ordered. Our experiences with the Newfoundland government information line were less rewarding, despite the fact that everyone we talked with was more than pleasant and willing to help. We were initially transferred to the Department of Economics and Statistics, then to Municipal Affairs, then to the local government subdivision of Finance and General Operations, where we were informed that the government has figures only on the current number of incorporated communities. Based on the experiences here and with the question on endangered plants, referrals to federal or provincial government agencies may not be suitable types of referrals for library staff to make when there is not absolute certainty that the data being sought is in fact generated by a specific government agency. It is therefore incumbent upon library reference personnel to be very familiar with the types of information federal and provincial governments do and do not provide. Otherwise, the result may be many unsuccessful telephone transfers between various government departments or dead ends.

We also consulted the Web page of one of the largest bookstores in Canada. Although Where Once They Stood: A Gazetteer of Abandonment is available through this outlet, a person attempting to find this book through keyword or subject searches would be unable to do so. The reason is that, at the time we tried to locate the book, the word Newfoundland was not associated with it in the description field. Thus, while a search under the term abandon* would theoretically find this text, there would be no way to tell that it was indeed about Newfoundland, since there is no indication in the title about the book's pertinence to that Canadian province. To be sure, as this Web site evolves, description fields will be added to all available books, and these fields will no doubt be indexed. When that occurs, an answer to the reference question asked here would be readily available through the Web site of this bookstore. This circumstance raises the troubling issue of the relevancy of the public library in an era in which online bookstores, with their massive catalogues, are proliferating.

If patrons begin to discover that many of the questions and problems that they would have traditionally gone to a library to find answers for can now be solved through online facilities, the image of the public library as a valuable taxpayer-funded institution may become diminished and its role in the community increasingly precarious. Accordingly, one way to maintain, or enhance, the image of the public library might be to make a strong commitment to providing superior value-added reference service. This would mean a group of highly trained staff who, collectively, are extremely comfortable with all types of print and electronic reference tools and who pay attention to daily developments in electronic and print information sources.


This story appeared on the front page of The Globe and Mail in late May 1998, although it had been reported in late January 1998 by some Montreal newspapers. It detailed new statistics about an alarming increase in the usage of Ritalin by elementary school children in Québec. According to a study performed by International Medical Statistics (IMS), based in Montreal, and Pierre Paradis, a professor of education at the University of Québec at Rimouski, the number of children using Ritalin soared by about 380 percent since 1990, reaching a figure of 179,000 in 1997. The article in The Globe and Mail generated controversy, with many articles in the local Montreal press disputing the statistics and methodology of the Paradis report. Here, a correct answer was defined as making reference to any newspaper report about Ritalin and Québec.

Two libraries supplied a correct answer, while fifteen others suggested visiting the library and making use of magazine and periodical indexes, current affairs databases, or consumer medical databases. Two referrals were made to university libraries, and a further two referrals were made to a provincial learning disabilities association and the Canadian Medical Association (CMA).

We followed these last two referrals. The provincial learning disabilities association could not provide any information. We also called the CMA, where we were told that they were not the best place to look for this [kind of information] and instead were directed to contact either the Canadian Pharmaceutical Association (CPA) or Statistics Canada. Upon contacting Statistics Canada, we were told that they did not collect such information, but also recommended the CPA as a likely source. The CPA, however, informed us that its mandate does not include collecting statistics, and directed us to get in touch with IMS Canada in Montreal. At IMS, we were immediately transferred to the account management department, where we were told that they did indeed have the required Ritalin statistics, but that, since they were a for-profit health data company, the information would cost a few hundred dollars minimum. Although the four referrals for this question did not lead to a satisfactory conclusion, a majority of library staff members readily identified newspapers or periodicals (listed in indexes or on CD-ROM databases) as the most plausible source for information about this question even though they themselves had not read about it in the press. Library reference staff are therefore aware that much statistical data may be obtained from newspapers and periodicals.


A light-hearted story examining the relationship between golf scores of chief executive officers of major companies and the success of their companies appeared both in The New York Times and The Globe and Mail in late May and early June 1998. Its conclusion was that CEOs who are better golfers, as measured by their golf handicaps, deliver above-average returns to shareholders, as measured by the performance of the company's stock over a three-year period. A correct answer in this case was defined as knowing that such a study had been recently performed.

This is the type of story that, especially at the beginning of the summer golf season, would receive broad diffusion over the radio and television. Seven libraries provided a correct answer to this question, and some were specifically able to cite The Globe and Mail, a report in their local paper, or a television network broadcast. All seven knew that a study of this kind had been recently conducted, and recommended current newspapers or periodicals as a source. Four libraries could not give any answer at all. Among this group was one reference staff member who, in exasperation with the question, stated that if you want to know such things, you should probably be reading the papers. Eight libraries recommended visiting the library, but unlike previous questions where an initial source was suggested, six of these eight libraries did not give the patron any starting point. Indeed, two libraries stated that the question was a difficult one that would require much research that could only be done in person. Two libraries made referrals. The first was to either a golf store or a golf organization, and the second was to any golf site on the Internet. Neither the referral to the golf store nor to the golf organization, which we defined as the headquarters of the Royal Canadian Golf Association (RCGA), was fruitful. The RCGA representative said that he would have no idea where to begin with such a question.


Two stories in The Globe and Mail on two consecutive days in mid-July 1998 discussed the exploits of Joshua Slocum, a Canadian who was the first person to circumnavigate the world alone. The first report was a human-interest story appearing as part of the popular Compass series of reports on page two, and the second report was the lead review, on the weekend Books page, of a biography of Slocum, entitled Alone at Sea: The Adventures of Joshua Slocum.

No library provided the correct answer. Two reference staff said that they had no idea, and offered no further help. Fourteen library workers recommended coming into the library to conduct research, and mentioned history books, microfiche, and old newspapers as the most likely sources of information. One library in this category had a local archives, and so the library staff member was sure that something about this question could be found there. Three referrals were made to university professors or university libraries, and one vague referral was made to a provincial library on the East Coast. One reference staff member recommended trying the Internet. We followed two of these referrals by phoning the history department of a major Canadian university and by contacting the legislative library in a province on the east coast of Canada. Staff at the legislative library were unwilling to help with this question. At the university history department, we were referred to a specialist in naval history who very graciously told us that he would look into the matter. About five weeks later, the naval historian called and informed us about Joshua Slocum and recommended a number of biographies about his exploits.


During the summer months of 1998 the gasoline additive MMT was the subject of ongoing, sometimes bitter, controversy in Canada. The federal government had banned imports of, and interprovincial trade in, MMT for environmental reasons, but an American-based manufacturer, Ethyl Corporation of Richmond, Virginia, was threatening to sue the government under the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Faced with a legal opinion that it was likely to lose the court challenge, the government dropped its ban on MMT and paid $10 million to Ethyl Corporation for legal costs and lost profits, despite the existence of new evidence that MMT could cause nervous-system damage and attention deficit disorder in children. Car companies severely criticized the government's decision, claiming that MMT had a detrimental impact on emission controls. Numerous front page stories in The Globe and Mail about this controversy during the last few weeks of July 1998 attest to the importance of this story for Canadians.

The correct answer to this question was given ten times by library reference personnel, who often cited reports in The Globe and Mail as their source. Only two libraries had no idea about the question, while another three urged the patron to visit the library and conduct research. Six referrals were made: one to a gas station, one to a university chemistry department, two to the Reference Canada (RC) information line, and a further two to Environment Canada. RC also made a reference to Environment Canada. After calling two separate numbers at Environment Canada, we were transferred to the Commercial Chemicals department, where we were informed that the person who could answer this question would return our call soon. And, in fact, we were called back the next day with a complete history of the legal status of MMT in Canada. In addition, the referral to a gas station turned out to be successful. We looked in the Yellow Pages and found a toll-free number for the customer service department of the largest service-station retailer in Canada. The representative with whom we spoke remembered that she had recently been given a Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) response sheet about MMT. Upon finding this FAQ, she was able to provide us with as much information about MMT as we wanted, including summaries of scientific studies about its benefits and drawbacks.


Another major story in Canada during the summer months of 1998 was the signing, after protracted and often acrimonious negotiations, of the Nisga'a treaty between native peoples in British Columbia, and the federal government in Ottawa and the provincial government of British Columbia. While the main points of the treaty dealt with financial compensation and ancestral land claims, another provision requires that two Canadian museums, the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria and the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa-Hull, return some 250 artifacts belonging to the Nisga'a people of British Columbia. This provision addresses the issue of repatriation of sacred objects to their rightful owners--an issue of growing importance to native peoples in the United States as well as Canada. The front page of the weekend Arts section of The Globe and Mail was devoted to the repatriation clauses of the Nisga'a treaty; the story also included relevant Web site addresses. A correct answer was defined as knowing that native artifacts had to be returned under the terms of the treaty.

This question generated the greatest number of correct answers via telephone from library reference staff. Eleven correct answers were received, and many of these made specific mention of the report in The Globe and Mail. There were eight referrals, five of which were either to the Reference Canada information line, the Department of Indian Affairs, or to the Museum of Civilization. One library worker had no idea about the question, and another reference staff member recommended a visit to the library for further research. We followed the five specifically-named referrals above. After transfers between various government departments, very complete information about the exact number of native artifacts was received from the Chief of Ethnology of the Museum of Civilization as well as from the Indian and Inuit Arts Center, by way of the Historical Research Center of the Department of Indian Affairs. In particular, the Chief of Ethnology not only took the time to return our call from Vancouver, but also explained in detail the difference between artifacts that had to be returned and those for which a shared custodial arrangement had been forged.


Only two reference questions were answered correctly, a rate close to or above 50 percent. These questions concerned the gas additive MMT and the Nisga'a treaty. 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 that also were prominently featured on the front pages of newspapers. The fact that about 50 percent of library reference staff was able to answer these two questions is an indication that some library workers realize the importance of keeping up with current news, at least for those 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 daily information sources such as newspapers and magazines.

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, may be explained by at least three reasons. First, newspapers and periodicals may not be taught as valuable sources of information and reference tools in reference courses at schools of library and information science in Canada. Based on our study, teachers of reference courses may wish to reconsider this lacuna when they prepare syllabi in the future. Second, the habit of reading print versions of newspapers as part of being a well-and broadly educated individual may be outmoded. Online newspapers may fill a gap in this regard, but the electronic medium may not be conducive to the type of prolonged and detailed reading necessary for recall and comprehension. Third, the increasing number of paraprofessionals working at reference desks may be even less aware of the value of current news information sources than professional librarians. Library administrators should ask themselves whether the intent is simply to have the reference desk staffed, or to have it staffed by people with expertise.

This study found that 60 percent of referrals are successful. 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. If statistics are kept about reference completion rates, a referral should not automatically be counted as a satisfactory conclusion to a reference inquiry. Library statistics that do not take referrals into consideration may not give an accurate picture about the proficiency of reference service. Another factor is many patrons' ability and willingness to afford long-distance calls to locate specific information, so referral success may be even lower than the figures indicated here. Library reference personnel may wish to consider all local possibilities before making an unverified referral that involves the expenditure of money by the patron.


Because library reference staff may feel that they lack the time to read newspapers on a regular basis in order to keep up with world developments, library administrators may wish to consider providing each member of the reference team with paid time in order to peruse relevant material such as newspapers or magazines. Admittedly, this is a controversial proposal, but a staff member who is well read and stays current about a wide variety of topics will not only provide better reference service because of ongoing and constant exposure to new sources of knowledge, but will also be able to show real interest about a wide variety of topics. Patricia Dewdney and Catherine Sheldrick Ross have identified genuine interest as a necessary component of a successful reference transaction.(6) In addition, it may often be the case that the most experienced and knowledgeable reference librarians are promoted into management positions that take them away from front-line public service work. Library administrators may wish to structure work arrangements and schedules in such a way that experienced personnel who have management responsibilities remain directly involved with reference work.

Another important observation in this study is that staff often were in a hurry to terminate the transaction by either telling the patron to come into the library and look around in vaguely defined sources and areas, or by giving an unmonitored referral. As shown by Ross and Dewdney, these are typical negative closure behaviors in which the reference librarian wishes to terminate the transaction, thus moving the patron through the system as quickly as possible.(7) Therefore it may be advisable to develop policies about the need for giving only monitored referrals when the librarian knows for certain that a patron will find the required answer. For instance, Patricia Gebhard urges librarians to verify the success of referrals ahead of time by calling the location to which the patron is being sent. Although her advice is meant to apply specifically to students in an academic library environment, calling ahead is a worthwhile suggestion for all libraries because the librarian can explain the particular information need of the individual, thus determining whether help will be forth-coming at that location. Moreover, calling ahead can keep referring librarians from feeling that they have sent [patrons] on a wild goose chase.(8) Policies should also be adopted to make staff aware of activities that are typically perceived by patrons as constituting negative closure. Staff should be provided with clear guidelines about the types of helping behaviors that genuinely move a patron forward in her search for information and that contribute to eventual resolution of the information gap, and those that increase the frustration level of patrons. Naturally, only the first kind of behaviors should be encouraged, and, optimally, a procedure should be established to ascertain whether such behaviors are, in fact, common practice. Vanessa Czopek, for example, recommends that libraries institute a mystery shopper program to rate themselves on the quality of services delivered.(9)

It also may be time to think seriously about various types of competency tests for librarians. One such plan, 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.(10) In public libraries, of course, baseline competencies would be different. Still, reference staff could be tested on a broad array of topics reflective of the range of subject matter a reasonably well-informed and well-read individual could be expected to possess. Worthy of consideration, too, is a rigorous certification and a regular re-certification process for librarians, along the lines of what an increasing number of state governments are demanding for elementary and high school teachers.(11) In addition, some states such as New York and Texas have adopted rules whereby at least 70 percent (in the case of Texas) or 80 percent (in the case of New York) of students who graduate from state teaching programs must pass the state licensing exam for teachers or that teaching school can be put on probation for three years and then shut down, or lose its accreditation.(12) It may not be that outlandish to suggest that university programs in the business of training future librarians should also be subject to such regulations.

Nevertheless, managerial and policy changes such as those mentioned here can only go so far in fundamentally improving reference service. A reference success rate of 19.5 percent (without successful referrals) or a success rate of 34.2 percent (with successful referrals) should give pause. At the end of the day, library reference staff should take stock of their own levels of general knowledge about current political, economic, social, and cultural issues. If, after an honest appraisal, they deem their knowledge to be wanting, they should challenge themselves to raise their sights and improve their general knowledge of current issues, on their own time, so that they can be well prepared to handle reference questions with a high level of proficiency. In a world whose only constant is change and evolution, knowledge and information evolve and expand at a breathtaking pace, and it would be ironic indeed if library reference personnel (who, after all, are information professionals) failed to keep up with the world of knowledge through self-education. When all is said and done, reading newspapers is an inexpensive way to keep current and greatly increase one's general knowledge. To be sure, the reference staff member who told us, in answer to our question about golf and CEOs, that, if you want to know such things, you should probably be reading the papers, was being dismissive and condescending. In the final analysis, however, the joke is on her, because her statement reveals a profound misunderstanding of the role of public library reference professionals--a role that, among other things, means respecting both the profession of librarianship and the patrons of the public library by continually striving to be as knowledgeable (and hence useful) as possible when faced with reference queries.


In other words, reference librarians, whether or not they are provided with paid time to keep current, should do everything in their power to avoid the embarrassment of not knowing about significant local, national, or world issues that may be the subject of the next reference question. Consider the following telling example, taken from a front page story appearing in The New York Times in conjunction with the twenty-fifth anniversary of former President Richard M. Nixon's resignation in the wake of the 1974 Watergate scandal. Although the anecdote concerns the teaching profession, it has general applicability for librarians as well. Reporting on an exhibit of photographs at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History commemorating Nixon's fall from power, Adam Clymer describes how an elementary school principal who was just five years old when [Nixon] resigned ... wondered aloud just why the disgraced President had to go. Upon hearing about covert payments to the Watergate burglars, she gasped. Told about his use of the Internal Revenue Service against his political enemies and how his 'plumbers' broke into Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office, she recoiled. Then she retraced her steps ... and looked at some more of [the] striking photographs. The Oregon educator said the exhibit 'fills in some of the gaps in my history.'(13)

Later in the story, Clymer notes that with the events in Watergate often given short shrift in the last few weeks of a high school survey of American history, the principal's ignorance was not unusual. But, as a subsequent letter to the editor observed, what does it say about our educational system that an 'educator' can become a principal and be so unaware of the facts about one of the most significant events of our time?(14) While it is easy to blame external forces such as the media for the principal's lack of knowledge, ultimately the responsibility for not knowing about significant historical and contemporary events rests with the principal herself.

One reason teaching gets so little respect is precisely because of incidents such as the one described here. Could this have happened to a librarian? One certainly hopes not, yet the results of the present study give pause. As our results show, reference staff simply do not seem to realize the importance of keeping up with current events. Would librarians be embarrassed if the individual highlighted in the Watergate story had been a fellow librarian? One would certainly hope so, and one would also hope that each librarian would try to make sure that such a situation wouldn't happen to him or her personally. To be sure, not all the world's knowledge and information may be gleaned from a newspaper, but the act of reading newspapers may be thought of as a leading indicator of a general interest and concern about cultural and social issues. It may be perceived as an avenue towards a more in-depth understanding of key trends and discoveries. Librarians have a clear responsibility both to themselves and the profession to ensure that they are as knowledgeable as possible by constantly reading, and then reading some more. As Margaret Stieg points out, it is a pity that most Americans define education in terms of courses taken and don't feel that they can know something unless they have taken a course in it, especially because individual purposive reading is often the best continuing education program that a librarian can take.(15)

For their part, library education programs have a responsibility to engender an attitude in their graduates that reference sources are only a bridge to the world of knowledge and not knowledge itself, that the effective librarian must operate in that world of knowledge.(16) To a large extent, librarians are taught the theory of reference service. There is concentration on the process, method, and tools of reference work, while subject knowledge is often neglected. To put it simply, library students are not accustomed to reading newspapers, to understanding the connection between general knowledge of how the world works and how that knowledge can serve the interests of the public. As a result, their level of cultural literacy is not what it should be. Nor is it overly stressed in library programs that reading newspapers, or simply reading as much as one possibly can in order to acquire as much knowledge as one possibly can, is useful and indeed praiseworthy.

And although it was not librarians who did not know about the Watergate scandal in the above example, this lack of general knowledge reflects the same malaise apparent during the telephone reference questions we asked during the present study. Obviously, not every librarian or reference staff member can know something about everything, but a careful reader of newspapers would certainly have no problem identifying the details of the major news stories of our time. As Walter, Wyer, and Hutchins knew, newspaper reading not only opens up new vistas for busy librarians, but also contributes to what Stieg saw as value-added reference work: [i]t may not be measurable, but the word gets around that Ms. X is especially knowledgeable.(17) Accordingly, daily careful reading of major newspapers such as The New York Times, Washington Post, and The Globe and Mail can be a helpful starting point for improved reference service.

Related Papers

Weed to Achieve: A Fundamental Part of the Public Library Mission
Reference Work and the Value of Reading Newspapers: An Unobtrusive Study of Telephone Reference Service
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. Frank Keller Walter, In a Quiet Corner with a Little Book, Collection Management 6, no. 314 (Fall/Winter 1984): 28- 35.

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

3. Margaret Hutchins, Introduction to Reference Work (Chicago: American Library Association, 1944), 69-70. In this quotation and throughout her book, Hutchins uses the masculine pronoun to signify both female and male librarians. Such usage now can be seen to be a historical artifact, and readers are urged to silently read in the feminine pronoun where only the masculine appears.

4. Charles A. D'Aniello, Cultural Literacy and Reference Service, RQ 28, no. 3 (Summer 1989): 370-80.

5. Juris Dilevko and Elizabeth Dolan, Reference Work and the Value of Reading Newspapers: An Unobtrusive Study of Telephone Reference Service at Canadian Public Libraries, Reference User Services Quarterly 39, no. 1 (Fall 1999): 71-81.

6. Patricia Dewdney and Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Flying a Light Aircraft: Reference Service Evaluation from a User's Viewpoint, RQ 34, no. 2 (Winter 1994): 217-30.

7. Catherine Sheldrick Ross and Patricia Dewdney, Negative Closure: Strategies and Counter-Strategies in the Reference Transaction, Reference User Services Quarterly 38, no. 2 (Winter 1998): 151-63.

8. Patricia Gebhard, The Reference Realist in Library Academia (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1997), 41.

9. Vanessa Czopek, Using Mystery Shoppers to Evaluate Customer Service in the Public Library, Public Libraries 37, no. 6 (Nov./Dec. 1998): 370-75.

10. Peter Hernon and Ellen Altman, Assessing Service Quality: Satisfying the Expectations of Library Customers (Chicago: American Library Association, 1998), 177.

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

12. Anemona Hartocollis, New York State Regulators Toughen Standards for Teachers, New York Times, 8 September 1999, A12.

13. Adam Clymer, Time (25 Years) and Scandal Fatigue Blur the Fall of Nixon, New York Times, 9 August 1999, A1, A12.

14. Donald Howard, Letter to the Editor, New York Times, 11 August 1999, A19.

15. Margaret F. Stieg, Continuing Education and the Reference Librarian in the Academic and Research Library, Library Journal 105, no. 22 (Dec. 15, 1980): 2547-51.

16. Ibid., 2550.

17. Ibid., 2551.

Copyright © 2024 Moya K. Mason, All Rights Reserved

Back to: Resume and More Papers