Assessing Reference and User Services in a Digital Age

Žibutę Petrauskienę (User Service Department, Vilnius University Library, Vilnius, Lithuania)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 25 July 2008




Petrauskienę, Ž. (2008), "Assessing Reference and User Services in a Digital Age", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 64 No. 4, pp. 632-634.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Libraries play an important role in providing access to information, organizing it, and helping users to find the information they need. One of the main activities of libraries is the reference service, when librarians help users to find an information source or the information itself to meet their individual needs. New technologies, IT, internet offers opportunities to provide and enhance these services more effectively. Digital age may be evident in many aspects of library services. The card catalogue has been replaced with OPACs in many libraries; users now search for information from their desktop; users can download e‐books or journal articles; full‐text retrieval of information sources is becoming commonplace. Web 2.0 technologies have been seen by many information professionals as critical to the future development of library services. But the significant question is “how to evaluate these new services, either from methodological, efficiency, or a quality perspective“ (p. 1). One can find the answer to the question in the book Assessing Reference and Use Services in a Digital Age (edited by Eric Novotny). In the compendium of essays the assessment of reference in the context of today's world is explored and explained. The articles consider all parts of reference services – from chat and e‐mail to online tutorials. The book addresses its subject matter via approaches from case studies to examples of best practices. The book has been co‐published simultaneously as The Reference Librarian, No. 95/96, 2006.

The compendium of essays consists of three parts:

  1. 1.

    Library Case Studies and Research Results.

  2. 2.

    Standards and Methods for Evaluating Virtual Reference.

  3. 3.

    Assessing Library Instruction in an Online Environment.

First article Benchmarking Librarian Performance in Chat Reference (Loree Hyde, Caleb Tucker‐Raymond) describes efforts to measure librarian's performance in chat reference by using use transcript analysis. Oregon's state‐wide digital service, L‐net, is a joint service with 23 libraries. The method for evaluating and measuring of digital reference services they used was a survey and comparison librarian performance with service guidelines. The article “Same questions, different venue: an analysis of in‐person and online questions” by Joseph Fennewald explores the differences between transactions at reference desks and online reference services, examining the questions submitted in‐person with those posted by e‐mail or through chat. The results of the research helped to identify the difficulties library users faced, the skills needed to librarians to work in reference service, the subject areas being researched, etc. The study found that in‐person questions were similar to those posted online. The article “Listening to our users: system migration and the evaluation of web‐based library services” (Laurie Probst, Michael Pelikan) describes experience of the Pennsylvania State University Libraries. After implementation of new integrated library system they organized the user survey using Libraries homepage. “Tell us what you think” – that was the question for users. Analysis of the information collected from the question helped to identify areas for further research and to improve the functionality of the catalogue.

Next article “Evaluating virtual reference from the users' perspective” by Kristi Nilsen and Catherine Sheldrick Ross discusses the evaluation of virtual reference services from the user position. The results of long‐term research project were described. The project Library Visit study examined the reference transactions as it occurs face‐to‐face in the physical space of a public or academic library and identified the key factors in the virtual reference transaction that make a difference to users and to their evaluation of the success of the accomplishment. The article “Balancing Statewide and Local Digital Service” by Ruth Vondracek explores the benefits and issues of offering service at the state‐wide and local level based on Oregon State University's experience and describes how OSU responded to these issues.

The second part of the book starts with the article “Looking at the bigger picture: an integrated approach to evaluation of chat reference services” by M. Kathleen Kern. The article states, that it is important to evaluate libraries' virtual services in the context of reference services as a whole. Holistic evaluation will give a better view of reference services. It is important to estimate why evaluate; what evaluate and how evaluate. According to the article – “future of reference evaluation looks a lot like the history of reference evaluation; it just includes few new pieces” (p. 111). Andrew Breidenbaugh in the article “Budget planning and performance measures for virtual reference services” analyses the process of budget planning for a countywide, public library system in which the mandated steps for evaluating performance and measuring success are part of process of receiving funding. The article “VET: the virtual evaluation toolkit” (Buff Hirko) deals with the problems of developing evaluation tools. The article starts with the description of the circumstances under which the work started and the players were involved in developing evaluation tools. Then it describes the evaluation of the process and modification of the materials. Examples of tools and checklists are included at the end. The article “Assessing digital reference and online instructional services in an integrated public/university library” (by Lauren Miranda Gilbert, Mengxiong Liu, Toby Matoush, Jo Bell Whitlatch) describes the plans that where established to evaluate digital reference services, including e‐mail, live online reference and instructional services for remote users at the integrated public/university Dr Martin Luther King, Jr Library. The article “Costing reference: issues, approaches, and directions for research” (by Melissa Gross, Charles R. McClure, R. David Lankes) presents most useful measures in costing reference: total cost of providing digital reference service, the cost of digital reference service as a percent of the total reference budget, and the cost of reference as a percent of the total library budget.

The third part starts with the article “Instruction in a virtual environment: assessing the needs for an online tutorial” (by Wendy Holliday, Sharolyn Ericksen, Britt Fagerheim, Rob Morrison, Flora Shrode). It presents some proposals how to improve online tutorials. According to the authors online tutorials could be evaluated by users and learning outcomes. They propose to use various methods for testing and evaluation and various models for creating tutorials. The last article “Virtual reference services and instruction: an assessment” by Lesley M. Moyo assesses the incorporation of instruction in library virtual reference services, and explores whether the rate, and nature of instruction provided to patrons during virtual services is different from that provided during face‐to‐face reference.

It is important to state that the compendium is very practical. It is full of examples and bibliographies and provides answers to a multitude of reference assessment questions. The book is strongly recommended to professional librarians and information specialists, whose activities are associated with reference and information service.

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