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Quality study

Reference Service: A Preliminary

by John C. Stalker and Marjorie

A general reference department achieved a high score on the Wisconsin-Ohio Reference Evaluation Program. Intensive use of electronic resources, a good reference collection, good architecture, administrative support, and, most importantly, adequate time provided by the consultation model contributed, in this case, to high-quality service.

E. Murfin


knowledge of factors associated with outstanding reference service, particularly any which appear to be directly under the control of the library or the reference department, should prove useful to providers of that service. Recently the authors gained access to the data resulting from use of the Wisconsin-Ohio Reference Evaluation Program (WOREP) by the main reference department at the Brandeis University Library. This library attained the highest score yet achieved by a general reference department in a four-year institution. Consequently, it appeared that a preliminary assessment of the reference department in its actual setting might identify, for further investigation, factors that influence the provision of high-quality service. These factors would be investigated by means of comparisons with WOREP norms, and by means of an onsite assessment. If such factors were found, their potential utility would then be considered. The question would be asked, “If these factors are substantiated by further research, how might they be turned to the advantage of other libraries?’ A final purpose was centered around the fact that this library attained its high success while using an innovative research consultation model. The question was asked, “To what extent was the high quality of professional reference service demonstrated, due to use of this model?’ BACKGROUND

]ohn C. Stalker is Head, information Department,

Ohio State University

7 858 Neil Avenue 43210 Marjorie Information

E. Murfin

Services Libraries,

Mall, Columbus,


<stalker.?>. is Reference

Services Department,

Librarian, Ohio State

University <>.



The Wisconsin-Ohio Reference Evaluation Program In 12 years of operation, WOREP, directed by Charles Bunge at the University of Wisconsin, has examined 7,013 reference transactions in 74 general reference departments in academic libraries around the country. For a selected sample period, each patron who asks a reference or directional question receives a form with a brief

checklist of questions about the transaction. The patron is informed that the reference department is conducting a survey and is asked to deposit the checklist in a labeled container some distance away. The librarian fills out a corresponding checklist, coded so that responses can later be matched. A transaction is scored as successful only when the patron reports finding exactly what was wanted, marks being fully satisfied, and does not check any of the nine listed reasons for dissatisfaction.’ The mean success rate for all academic libraries which have so far been evaluated is 57%. On this basis, the Program has arbitrarily set the criterion for quality as a success rating of at least 60%. Findings of the Wisconsin-Ohio Reference Evaluation Program The WOREP data suggest that medium-sized libraries may have a general advantage in attaining success. For purposes of the WOREP survey, academic library sizes are as follows: small: under 500,000 volumes (27 cases), medium: 500,000 to 999,999 volumes (26 cases), and large: one million volumes plus (21 cases). Success rates of no more than 50% are considered poor. Success rates between 5 1% and 59% are considered fair or adequate, whereas success rates of at least 60% are considered good or excellent.* Figure 1 shows the differing distributions of success rates in general reference departments in the three different sizes of academic libraries. Forty-six percent of medium-sized libraries give quality reference service compared with 30% in small libraries and 28% in large ones. The most likely outcome in large academic libraries is adequate service (43%). In small academic libraries the most common outcome is poor to fair service (41%). Any advantage of being a mediumsized library may result from several fac-




Figure 1 Distribution of Success Rates







80 60

Large cl



Good to Excellent

Small Adequate

Poor to Fair

tions above the mean. Furthermore, the Brandeis reference department has been prominent in the literature for its adoption of the consultation model of reference service.(j In this model, graduate students staff the general reference desk. They are trained by a professional librarian to answer low-level questions and have an “Information Desk Assistants Manual” of approximately 100 pages to assist them. They refer all other questions, even in areas in which they may have some subject expertise, to the professional librarians in the consultation office. The model allows 20 minutes per patron, if needed, for consultation. The performance of the professional librarians, and not of the graduate students, was measured in the survey. Not enough student transactions were recorded during the WOREP survey for significant evaluation of this model as a whole.


tors. A physically centralized reference collection in one location is characteristic of medium-sized libraries but not of large libraries. The medium-sized collection is large enough to be adequate for most needs, but not so large as to require dispersion into smaller libraries at different locations. Print sources must be physically consulted, since the great body of reference information is not yet available in electronic form. Electronic sources do not need to be centralized, and as dependence on these sources grows, the above results may change to reflect this. Recent WOREP results give some indication that as reference use of computerized reference databases increases, differences found between sizes of libraries may decrease. Another possible reason may be that the patrons are perhaps not so numerous as to overwhelm the library’s financial ability to provide sufficient staff. The reference librarian must have time to deal with the problem posed by each person’s question. In addition to the intellectual problem of finding the information, the librarian must cope with such constraints as patrons who are in a hurry, and patrons who need extra help. WOREP data, to be discussed later, indicate that mediumsized libraries are less likely to suffer from


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the negative effects of being overly busy than are large libraries.

“The WOREP data suggest that medium-sized libraries may have a general advantage in attaining success.” Further details on the rationale, validity, reliability, sampling, and other survey procedures of the Wisconsin-Ohio Reference Evaluation Program can be found in the cited literature.3 Comparisons of the WOREP and its results with other methods of reference evaluation can be found in The Reference Assessment Manual by the RASD Evaluation of Reference and Adult Services Committee.4 Reports on findings are also available.5 The Brandeis Model The main library at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, is a medium-seized library of approximately 850,000 volumes. The only separate large collection is a science library. The reference department, which has a centralized reference collection of 16,000 volumes, attained an appreciatively high score of 72% according to the WOREP measure of success. This result is 2 standard devia-

Brandeis achieved a high success rate while employing an innovative service model. This study compares its results with hitherto unpublished WOREP data to determine how Brandeis’ professional reference librarian performance differs from the performance of the typical academic reference department in the areas covered by the WOREP data. After a preliminary examination of the data, the authors decided to visit Brandeis in the fall of 1995. The site visit lasted two days and included interviews with the library director and head of public services, attendance at a regularly scheduled reference department meeting, examination by the authors of the reference and consulting areas, and observation of reference transactions. The objective of this preliminary study was to identify, for further investigation, factors associated with outstanding reference performance, particularly any which appear to be under the control of the individual library and/or the reference department itself.

FINDINGS In the data analysis and during the site visit, we looked for factors which might explain the high rate of success reported by patrons who asked reference questions during the survey period. Apart from the general factor of library size suggested by the WOREP data, the authors identified a number of particular factors which may explain the high success rate and are worthy of further investigation.

Reference Collection The authors, who have over 40 years of combined reference experience, inspected the reference collection, and judged certain parts of it as superior, notably biography and literary criticism. The biography collection was exceptional. Departing from the Library of Congress classificawere grouped tion, all biographies together in several sections on a long wall for quick and easy reference. This may account for the difference between the Brandeis Library’s success rate of 60% on biography questions contrasted with an average success rate of 44% for mediumseized academic libraries. (All future comparisons, unless otherwise noted, are to averages of the performance of general reference departments in medium-sized academic libraries). As for literary critito numerous other cism, in addition sources, a complete set of the volumes of the Dictionary of Literary Biography and its index were classed and grouped together for easy reference. Brandeis achieved 85% on literary criticism questions opposed to the 68% norm for similar libraries. Another feature of the collection was the Legal Reference Area, where law materials are grouped. Success on law questions was 67% and on politics and government questions 90%. Aside from having a truly exceptional biography collection, the collection appeared to be generally of high quality and well organized. Reference Source Use and Training In Table 1, the frequency of use of different sources by the Brandeis Library can be compared to the norm for other medium-sized libraries. Typical source use differed from the norm. Use of computerized databases was six times greater, use of OCLC or RLIN five times greater, and consultation of the online catalog twice as great.

Table 2 Percentage of ‘Ikansactions That Were Succesful When Different ‘Qpes of Sources Were Used in the Wisconsin-Ohio ReferenceEvaluation Survey Brandeis Library



Indexes to Periodicals



Reference Books



Online Catalog




47.70 63.33


72.50 75.00 50.00




OCLC, RLIN Computerized Databases Own Knowledge

Table 2 shows the success rate when different types of sources were used. The previously mentioned success rate of 90% on politics and government questions may be partially due to skilful and frequent use of Lexis/Nexis. There was more use of the online catalog and less of reference books. Almost all source use was more successful in this library than for the norm of similar libraries, but clearly skill with computerized sources and bibliographic databases contributed greatly to high success. Librarian knowledge also appeared to be a factor in that when their own knowledge was used as a source, the score was very high, and when consulting with other librarians was done, success was also greater than the norm. The reference colleCtion included a wide variety of electronic databases. As a training method, the librarians pair themselves regularly, and observe each other’s searching techniques. Also, each database has a designated expert who is responsible for training staff in use of that database. They have developed a high level of expertise in using the databases.’ Table 2

Table 1 Percentage of Transactions on Which Different ljpes of Sources Were Used in the Wisconsin-Ohio Reference Evaluation Survey Brandeis Library


Average for Medium Libraries


Indexes to Periodicals Reference Books





Online Catalog










Average for Medium Libraries

55.73 44.98

shows that the reference librarians are considerably above the norm in success in using computerized databases, online bibliographic databases, and the online catalog. Their high success in use of the online catalog, in the opinion of the reference librarians themselves, may have been due to being able to find books on almost any subject close at hand, within the richness of the Boston area library resources. This library also scored high in the use of indexes to periodicals. The collection maintenance staff in the Reference Department keeps a special record of all available indexes. In this way, reference librarians are able to make full use of collection resources and quickly identify the best index for a particular question. Reference Librarians Because of concerns of morale and to avoid burnout, both librarians and administrators agree that nine hours per week at the consultation desk should be the norm. This allows for sufficient off-desk time to pursue difficult questions. Reference librarians noted that their number included a superior documents librarian with long experience, a contention supported by a score on government documents questions of 75% versus a norm of 66% for similar libraries. The documents question success rate is 55% for small libraries and 44% for large libraries. Also, when the librarian’s own knowledge was reported as being used, scores were considerably above the norm (75% vs. 55%). Consulting with a colleague was also above the norm (50% vs. 39%). The librarians modestly denied characterization other than as a group of typically competent reference librarians.

November 1996


“Because of concerns of morale and to avoid burnout, both librarians and administrators agree that nine hours per week at the consultation desk should be the norm.” The success rate in both social sciences and humanities was 72% as opposed to norms for other medium-sized libraries of 65% for humanities and 58% for social sciences. A high success rate in both areas is unusual among WOREP results. The success rate in science is not relevant due to the existence of a separate science library. Success in locating specific titles requested by patrons was considerably above the norm (72% vs. 56%), and on bibliographical reference questions they achieved 82% versus a norm of 64%, and had a score considerably above the norm on the use of OCLC and RLIN (71% vs. 48%).

basis of separate discussions both with administrators and with reference librarians. There is a strong commitment to a maximum service model. The library administration asserted strong support for a model of reference service quality where the first priority of the reference transaction is that the user gain access to the needed information, with a strong secondary goal being the education of the user. These goals are shared by the Department and stated in its “Model of Service.” The library director comes from a corporate library background and strongly supports

Table 3 Loss of Success in Percentage Points When Librarian Reported “Bus~“~ Small Libraries to 499,999 vols.

Architecture Architectural factors were not covered in the data, and were not anticipated in the preliminary analysis as a factor. The visit suggested, however, that architecture and superior performance appear to be related. The design and working qualities of the reference and consultation area are impressive. The consultation room is supplied with desks, telephone, and computers, and provides a secure place for a large ready reference collection along one wall. It also has special reference files and aids developed by the Department. Librarians’ own offices are in a separate location. Directly outside the consultation room (within hearing distance), the reference desk is placed so that the graduate assistants can be in close touch with professional librarians. Graduate student performance can be monitored, and communication can take place when needed. Partial glass walls give visual access while providing a measure of privacy for searching and consulting. Administrative Support The role of administrative support was apparent, first in active support of the development and organization of the reference and database collection, and in support of a model which is designed to provide adequate time for each patron. In the case of this library a number of administrative factors could be identified, on the


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maximum service. In addition, she believes it important and worthwhile to strive for a level of service that rises above average. While supporting maximum service, she is also concerned about morale and burnout and supports a model where the librarians can experience the satisfaction of doing a job well. She actively encouraged the development of the new model to provide better quality service with available personnel, without overload and burnout of staff. As noted above, more detail on how this model was developed and on those who played a role in its





Large Libraries 1 million + ~01s.



40 61.11











8.75 31.43














21.41 20.27



















none 3.21 18.18

10.33 13.93 20.34

18.55 none none 17.01















15.52 3v1132



Total libraries 27



Libraries losing success 19






20.59 pts.

21.11 pts.

23.45 pts.

Average loss

development is available in the literature. Obviously a full service philosophy cannot be implemented without strong administrative commitment. Clearly, motivation and morale are needed to meet the demands of this high level of service. Effects of Time on Success Of all the factors studied, time appeared to be the one which could account for the greatest portion of this library’s success. The 20 minutes given to each patron is greater than the WOREP norm. Time spent per question was over 5 minutes 72% of the time, contrasted with 21% for the average medium-sized library. The ample time may be a factor in the success rate for certain types of questions. For example, for questions involving such difficult aspects as critical analysis, trends, the pros and cons of an issue, or causes and effects, they scored 83% versus 58% for the norm, a virtually unprecedented score in the WOREP results for these types of questions. Also, “explanations of the library” scored considerably higher than the norm (80% vs. 62%). Adequate time for explanations certainly appears to have helped. WOREP results indicate that general reference departments in all sizes of libraries lose considerable success when busy, as the Table 3 shows. Is there any way to determine the relative proportion of success due primarily to the increased time per question? The high success of this library might have been due to other favorable factors having to do with staff, collections, environment, etc., rather than to the increased time per question. One measure from the WOREP survey, the success rate of all professional librarians when they reported not being busy and making a search, may give some idea. In a sense, this gives a score for professional librarians in this size library under similar conditions to that of the consultation model. In this measure, the librarian reports that he or she can, at that moment, search or help the patron search without the pressure of other patrons waiting or interruptions. The norm for this score in medium-size libraries is 70.75%, while the Consultation Library when not busy and searching scored 75.68%. Comparing these scores roughly puts other librarians in other medium-sized libraries on a similar footing with the Consultation librarians. Thus, we might theorize that some 7% of their score is due to superior reference factors in their own situation, and the rest to the extra time provided by the model of service. If this hypothesis is correct, then

under the traditional model as a group they might have been expected to score 7% higher than the norm or around 65.14% which would place them in the “very good” category according to WOREP criteria. How did this extra time appear to contribute to success? It might be said that these reference librarians were simply better at everything measured by the WOREP survey. They were more successful at handling question problems, collection probcommunication problems, and lems, patron problems. DISCUSSION Confirmation of Survey Results Since the authors were basing their assumptions of excellence on WOREP results, it was necessary first, to confirm these results by assessment of the actual reference setting and operations. Did onsite assessment support the WOREP rating of excellence? This appeared to be the case, with each high score being able to be accounted for by what appeared to the authors to be superior reference resources and practices. No factors were noted which were obviously not in accord with the qualitative score achieved. Factors Tentatively Identified It appeared those factors tentatively identified are worthy of further investigation. If confirmed by further research, to what extent are these factors under the control of individual reference departments? Certainly, one cannot change the size of one’s library or change the decentralized nature of one’s library system. Nor can one locate one’s library in an area with rich library resources close at hand. Other factors, however, should be generally within the control of the reference department including the arrangement of the reference collection and reference training, particularly training in use of electronic sources. Other factors are, to a lesser extent, under the control of the reference department. Changing the priorities of the library administration and the dynamic relationships between the library administration and library departments would be more difficult to achieve. The architectural feature of a consulting room appeared to the authors to have been instrumental in success, although it cannot be said to exactly what extent this was so. Such a room, located directly adjacent to the information desk, provides ideal conditions for a quiet area for consultations, while at the same time permitting supervision of the information desk and

serving as a secure area for a ready reference collection. It does not appear that many reference departments will be able to undertake expensive redesign of their areas. However, if such redesign is contemplated or becomes possible, such a room should be given serious consideration. If other libraries utilize such consultation rooms, further investigation should be done of whether they do, as indicated here, contribute to reference success. A Primary Concern We come now to the factor which the authors consider to be primary in this library’s success, the effects of the extra time, free of interruptions. This factor is strongly supported by WOREP data which show that being busy, which means having insufficient time for most patrons and their questions, usually has a negative effect on success in all sizes of libraries. If being busy impacts on success, why has prior reference research not found this also? A principal reason may be found in an influential earlier study which did not find a relationship between success and being busy.’ As a result, this factor was essentially dropped from further investigation until Woodard’s research again lent it support in the finding of increased reference effectiveness under conditions of double staffing.” The degree of pressure that a reference librarian is under appears to come best from that librarian’s own perceptions. Unobtrusive studies do not reveal this affective condition. Whitlatch, using the librarian’s perception of being busy, did not find this variable to explain user success significantly. However, she did find, in a failure analysis, that of 13 subject reference questions (as opposed to requests for a specific title) 8% of failures were associated with being busy. ’ ’ Methodological differences may account for this difference in magnitude of impact. In her survey covering a variety of reference factors, Whitlatch used the question “How busy was the reference service when the user asked that question?’ with a 7-point scale from extremely busy to not at all busy. Data were collected by librarians who recorded every fifth transaction. Records were obtained for 257 transactions in 5 academic libraries. The WOREP includes a checklist of problems. If the transaction was busy, a box is checked after the word “busy.” This makes it relatively easy for the librarian to reflect the sense of pressure he or she may feel from users at the desk, telephone calls, and unfinished reference questions from

November 1996


users not in the immediate area. It is based on the premise that if it is easier to make the judgment of busy or not busy, then it is more likely to be marked by librarians when applicable. Results on the effects of being busy are based on records for 7,013 reference transactions from 74 general reference departments in academic libraries. In regard to sampling, the WOREP believes that sampling all reference transactions during a chosen sample period avoids the risk of losing count and also provides fewer opportunities for consciously or unconsciously shifting a particular transaction with problems over the line into the “not sampled” category, in effect sometimes “selecting” transactions to be sampled.

CONCLUSION The results of the WOREP survey at Brandeis and the observations made during the onsite visit show that the library has achieved a high level of success in answering reference questions. The consultation model appears at least partly responsible for this success. The adequate time allowed by the model for obtaining a result judged fully satisfactory by the patron appears to contribute to this success. However, other factors in this particular case, such as the contents and configuration of the reference area, and strong support for service by the library administration, also appear to foster success. Overall success of reference service depends on the effectiveness of the referral process conducted by the graduate students at the reference desk. Since we only considered the success by librarians in the consultation office in handling reference questions, this important question is outside the scope of the present study.

Needed Research This study takes only the first step in evaluation of the research consultation model, that of demonstrating that, in this one case, it appears to be primarily responsible for elevating this library’s perforMany questions mance to “excellent.” remain to be investigated besides the question of referral effectiveness, including: (1) Can these results be replicated in other medium-sized academic libraries using the consultation model? (2) Would this model give the same results in academic libraries of other sizes? (3) Does further evaluation of the success of this overall model show the same high level of success for graduate student personnel as for professional? (4) Are those served by the graduate students being shortchanged in


The Journal of Academic Librarianship

regard to quality of answers? (5) How many patrons fail to get service for immediate needs when the reference librarian is already occupied with a patron? Questions about the research consultation model in general also need to be answered, such as what can study of past use of the research consultation model reveal to us about effectiveness? How does this implementation of the model differ from other research consultation services, and what are the implications of this for effectiveness?

Implications Sufficient time for each patron and question is a key to breaking the barrier of the “5.5% Rule” on reference success. Ensuring adequate time for reference success should surely be accorded serious consideration. Three ways suggest themselves: (1) utilizing nonprofessionals in a triage relationship, (2) utilizing computerized sources effectively to find answers quickly, and (3) improving the efficiency of reference operations. The consultation model offers one way to devote professional time to patrons’ questions. Vital to the success of the model, nonetheless, is a commitment on the part of the library administration to high-quality service. The end goal must be to provide adequate time for each patron’s question. The benefits, in terms of patron satisfaction with reference service, are amply demonstrated in this library. Furthermore, successful answering of patrons’ reference questions serves as an indicator of the library’s service commitment.

“Sufficient time for each patron and question is a key to breaking the barrier of the “55% Rule” on reference success.” NOTESAND REFERENCES 1. The listed reasons for dissatisfaction are: (1) not enough, (2) need more in-depth, (3) not relevant enough, (4) want different viewpoint, (5) not sure if information is correct, (6) found nothing, (7) couldn’t find information in source, (8) need more simple, and (9) too much. 2. The WOREP criteria below have been developed from study of the distribution of success scores, and in light of what is desirable, balanced with what is possible. Poor O-50.99% 5 l-54.99% Fair

Adequate 5559.99% Good 60-64.99% Very Good 6569.99% Excellent 70% plus 3. Marjorie Murlin & Gary M. Gugelchuk, “Development and Testing of a Reference Transaction Assessment Instrument,” College & Research Libraries 48 (July 1987): 3 14-338. 4. The Reference Assessment Manual. American Library Association, Evaluation of Reference and Adult Services Committee (Ann Arbor, MI: Pierian Press, 1995). 5. Charles A. Bunge, “Gathering and Using Patron and Librarian Perceptions of QuestionAnswering Success,” in Evaluation of Public Services and Public Services Personnel, edited Allen (Urbana-Champaign: Bryce by University of Illinois, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, 1991), pp. 59-83; Charles A. Bunge, “Reference Questions - Data from the Field,” RQ 27 (Fall 1987): 15-18; Marjorie Murfin & Charles A. Bunge, “Evaluating Reference Service from the Patron Point of View: Some Interim National Survey Results,” The Reference Librarian 11 (Fall/Winter 1984): 175-182. 6. Carolyn M. Gray, “Systems Thinking in Information Service Delivery,” Journal of Library Administration 20 (3/4) (1995):25-43; Douglas Herman, “But Does It Work? Evaluating the Brandeis Reference Model,” Reference Services Review 22 (4) (1994): 1728; Virginia Massey-Burzio, “Rethinking the Reference Desk,” in Rethinking Reference in Academic Libraries, edited by Anne G. Lipow (Berkeley, CA: Library Solutions Press, 1993), pp.43-48; Virginia Massey-Burzio, “Reference Encounters of a Different Kind: A Symposium,” Journal of Academic Librarianship 18 (November 1992): 276-286. 7. For more details on the training program, see Gray, “Systems Thinking.. .“, p. 41. 8. Loss of success when busy was measured in the following way. Patron-reported success when the librarian checked “busy” was compared to the same success when the librarian did not check busy and reported helping with the search. This gives a figure for top potential, not confounded by the factor of directing (which WOREP has found to have a negative effect on success). In deciding whether a loss associated with being busy had occurred, two measures of being busy were compared and the largest loss recorded. If neither measure showed a loss, the library was judged as not being affected. The measures used were: success on all transactions recorded as busy, and success on the subset of transactions recorded as busy and search. Both measures were considered for the following reasons: The first has the advantage of representing the full loss on all busy questions. However, if a substantial portion of easy questions were successfully directed, the effect of being busy on harder questions might be masked in this measure. To check for this possibility, it is also appropriate to look at success in the subset of busy questions which where a search was done, to see if there is a

loss here, since these may tend to be harder questions. 9. Ralph Gers & Lillie J. Seward, “Improving Reference Performance: Results of a Statewide Study,” Library Journal 110 (November 1985):32-35; Lillie J. Dyson, “Improving Reference Services: A Maryland Training Program Brings Positive Results,” 3 1 Libraries (September/October Public 1992):284-289. 10. Beth Woodard, “The Effectiveness of an Information Desk Staffed by Graduate Students and Nonprofessionals at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign,” College & Research Libraries 50 (July 1989):455-467. 11. Jo Bell Whitlatch, “Reference Service Effectiveness,” RQ 30 (Winter 1990): 205-220.





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Quality Reference Service: A Preliminary Casestudy  

Quality Reference Service: A Preliminary Case study