The Evaluation of Worldwide Digital Reference Services in Libraries

Alastair G. Smith (Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand)

The Electronic Library

ISSN: 0264-0473

Article publication date: 6 June 2008




Smith, A.G. (2008), "The Evaluation of Worldwide Digital Reference Services in Libraries", The Electronic Library, Vol. 26 No. 3, pp. 424-425.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Digital reference services have been a topic of interest in libraries for a decade now. An interesting aspect of these services is that they have the potential for globalising reference service because a question posed by an enquirer in one country can be answered by a librarian in another. This makes possible cooperative services across time zones, as well as giving users access to geographically specific resources and expertise.

This book is the report of a joint research project between Stuttgart Media University and Peking University in which students from the two institutions evaluated e‐mail reference services. Each group sent a standard query to around 150 libraries, attempting to cover all countries and geographical areas (although Africa, in particular, was difficult to find representative libraries for). The responses, and subsequent interactions, were evaluated according to criteria based on the ALA Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) guidelines.

An introductory chapter gives an overview of the basics of digital reference, including an interesting section on multilingual digital reference, using the example of the Zentral‐ und Landesbibliothek Berlin, which through cooperation with other libraries offers web based reference services in 17 languages, including Russian, Chinese, and Turkish. Another chapter reviews the literature on evaluation of digital reference service, although there seems little on cross‐cultural issues.

Two chapters then discuss the evaluation project procedures and results from the western (German) and eastern (Chinese) point of view. The evaluation seems to have been largely quantitative – for example “friendliness” was judged on the percentage of services that used enquirers' and librarians' names. The evaluation was based on a sample of only two specific questions (German students asked about the Kyoto Protocol, the Chinese asked about China's entry to the WTO) which is likely to have biased the results.

A final chapter discusses the two sets of results, the issues in working on a cross‐cultural joint project, and the implications for digital reference in libraries. There is relatively little insight into the cultural differences – one point was that fewer Chinese students were addressed by name, possibly because western librarians had difficulty with Chinese names.

Compliance with RUSA guidelines was fairly low, for example relatively few services asked if the enquirer was satisfied. However the evaluators viewed the services positively, the Germans being more positive about the reference services than the Chinese. Interestingly Australian reference services came out top in terms of compliance with guidelines, and the evaluators' overall impression.

The book includes an index plus detailed appendices of the question protocol and lists of libraries used. Although the book is generally well written and organised, a more stringent copy editor would have clarified statements such as “the quality of a service cannot assess itself”.

While interesting, the book is essentially an extended research report and it is debatable whether publishing in book form is worthwhile, compared with making it available as a journal article – which unfortunately doesn't seem to have happened.

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