Letter to the Editor

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September 30, 2009

To the Editor:

I read “Developing a Model for Reference Research Statistics” by Harry C. Meserve, et al., (volume 48, number 3) with interest. The article dealt with the Warner model of classifying reference questions, and using it to develop triaged reference service.

My criticism of the article’s conclusions is that it misses the issue of the general decline in reference questions that followed adoption of the policy. Looking at the data provided in the article, in the eight months that followed the practice of paraprofessionals being the first point of patron contact, the library experienced a drop of 20 percent in the number of questions received. (Compared to the same months in the previous year.) The next year, 2006, saw another 7 percent drop. This drop occurred across the board, as the number of higher level questions fell by 32 percent. The fact that the professional librarians spent less time answering directional and skill-based questions does not justify a policy that leads to a dramatic drop in the number of people who choose to come to the reference desk.

Why the drop? I think there may be two reasons. First, professional librarians no longer conducted the reference interview, so that in many cases, patrons real questions were not answered. For example, recently I had a reader ask for books on Da Vinci. It turned out she wanted material on how to paint with oils. Without a reference interview, someone would have showed her the biography section.

The second reason is an affective one: simple questions, answered gracefully and elegantly, build a relationship of trust and care. If we ignore those human needs in the name of efficiency, patrons will not return to ask another.

This observation is supported by “Paraprofessionals at the Reference Desk” by Murfin and Bunge, (Journal of Academic Librarianship, March 1988). Murfin and Bunge studied patron satisfaction with paraprofessional reference in twenty different libraries, and found that in all twenty patrons reported “significantly less” overall satisfaction. Patrons specifically named trouble in communicating with the employee, dissatisfaction with the explanations and help they received, and being guided to inappropriate materials.

Quality of service cannot be measured by statistics, nor by the number and level of questions answered. Still, a drop of such size is a sure sign that something is amiss. Even though I disagree with their conclusion, I thank Mr. Meserve and the staff of the MLK Library for publishing this article and including their data, and for their efforts to improve our profession.

Sincerely,

Tony Greiner, Portland, Oregon

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