Practicing Reference... Learning from Library Science *

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1 Practicing Reference... Learning from Library Science * Mary Whisner ** Ms. Whisner describes the method and some of the resuts reported in a recenty pubished book about the reference interview written by two ibrary schoo professors. She points out that despite its academic approach, the book has much to offer the practicing reference ibrarian. 1 When I was in ibrary schoo, I sometimes caught a whiff of defensiveness among the facuty. Some peope in the outside word thought that ibrary education must amount to itte more than training students to stamp books and be fussy. And if these outsiders did not understand that reguar ibrarians needed master s degrees, then they certainy woud not understand that the professors had Ph.D.s. Even within the academy, some facuty members from other fieds might have occasionay suggested that ibrary science was not much of a science (not even a socia science). I am not saying that their defensiveness was not justified the discipine does strugge for recognition. Indeed, many ibrary students and ibrarians themseves ro their eyes and scoff at the idea of pursuing a doctorate. Who woud want to write a dissertation about any of that stuff? 2 This was quite a contrast with what I had seen in aw schoos. Unike ibrary schoo facuty, aw professors do not cing to the tite of Dr. (Of course, few of them even have doctorates other than the juris doctorate, the same professiona degree their students earn.) And yet nobody questions that aw is a discipine that requires study and shoud be taken seriousy. Law schoos do wreste with competing visions notaby, professiona schoo versus graduate schoo but their pace is more secure than ibrary schoos. 3 Even though peope roed their eyes or joked about ibrary science schoarship, students sti gave it some respect. Indeed, at east two of my cassmates went on to earn Ph.D.s and are now ibrary schoo professors. Nonetheess, since my schoo offered ony a master s program and was not focused on research, many of us competed our degrees without becoming steeped in the research methods of * Mary Whisner, ** Assistant Librarian for Reference Services, Marian Goud Gaagher Law Library, University of Washington, Seatte, Washington. 295

2 296 Law Library Journa [Vo. 95:2 ibrary and information science. I fet this ack recenty when I read a book that takes on the reference interview. Fortunatey, my deficiency didn t prevent me from earning from the book. 4 Understanding Reference Transactions: Transforming an Art into a Science, 1 by Matthew L. Saxton and John V. Richardson, Jr., has much to offer us practicing reference ibrarians even if we do not foow a the statistica anaysis. If one must choose either the art camp or the science camp, I suppose I fa in the former. But there is nothing wrong with peering over the fence to see what is going on in the other camp. Athough I do not conduct the origina scientific research, I can earn from it. 5 Saxton and Richardson carefuy summarize more than a century of schoarship about reference work in chapters 2 and 3 of their book. I found this to be a hepfu review of what my reference professor taked about sixteen years ago, as we as an introduction to some authors and studies I had never heard of. It was comforting to read a critique of the studies that found that reference ibrarians were ony right about 55% of the time. I d wondered whether something was fishy there. After a, every reference ibrarian I knew was reasonaby bright and conscientious. Coud we a be messing up neary haf the time? Richardson and Saxton point out that those studies incuded ony ready-reference questions and not any other aspect of persona reference assistance such as directing readers to sources for resoving research queries and providing readers with bibiographic instruction. 2 Moreover, these studies are predicated on the beief that reference queries exist as entities outside the context of the inquirers who pose them. Reference service is examined as something performed by the ibrarian in reation to a question, and not to a reader. 3 These two points make great sense. It is comparativey rare in our reference office to get the sort of questions that might be tested in that sort of study. Maybe pubic ibrarians get cas asking for the height of a mountain, the popuation of a city, or the date of a famous batte questions that have right and wrong answers. But I m sure they, ike we, spend more time working on questions that are open-ended or coud have a range of answers. Peope want hep finding information and materias for jobs, term papers, hobbies, or whatever not just isoated facts. And a ibrarian s response that woud be right for one patron might be wrong for another. 4 6 An interesting ine of studies ooked at user satisfaction, rather than accuracy. For exampe, studies in the 1980s by Roma Harris and Giian Miche found 1. MATTHEW L. SAXTON & JOHN V. RICHARDSON, JR., UNDERSTANDING REFERENCE TRANSACTIONS: TRANSFORMING AN ART INTO A SCIENCE (2002). Saxton is an assistant professor at the University of Washington Information Schoo. Richardson is a professor of information studies at the UCLA Graduate Schoo of Education & Information Studies. 2. Id. at Id. at For a good summary of the earier studies, the critique, and the study reported in the book, see John V. Richardson, Jr., Reference Is Better Than We Thought, LIBR. J., Apr. 15, 2002, at 41.

3 ] Learning from Library Science 297 that the demeanor of the ibrarian toward the patron during the reference interview may be just as important as competenty retrieving information. 5 7 Most of the book is devoted to the research Matt Saxton conducted for his dissertation. 6 The review of the iterature highights the strengths of his own project. For exampe: Many earier studies suffered from sma sampe sizes. Saxton ooked at thirteen pubic ibraries (a in Southern Caifornia), attempting to record a reference transactions for ten to thirteen one-hour sices per week during a three-week period in October This sampe incuded 9274 reference inquiries. The notorious 55%-right studies used ony a imited set of factua questions devised by the investigator. Saxton had ibrarians record the queries asked by rea patrons. Many earier studies examined ony one or two factors, for exampe trying to correate coection size with accuracy. Saxton devised measures for many variabes, arranged in compex modes. 8 The size and compexity of Saxton s research might make the study seem daunting. On the other hand, maybe the ess sophisticated studies have stuck in our minds precisey because they are so simpe too simpe. Even those of us with no training in statistics and socia science methodoogy can grasp this: a research team teephoned a bunch of ibraries and anonymousy asked questions from a ist; the ibrarians at the other end of the phone gave them correct answers ony 55% of the time. 9 However, those who ack training in statistica anaysis and indeed coud be a itte frightened of math might banch when they see that Saxton and Richardson, using hierarchica inear modeing (HLM), 7 express the study s research hypothesis in three equations bristing with Greek etters and subscripts Roma M. Harris & B. Giian Miche, Evauating the Reference Interview: Some Factors Infuencing Patrons and Professionas, 27 RQ 95, (1987), quoted in SAXTON & RICHARDSON, supra note 1, at Matthew Locke Saxton, Evauation of Reference Service in Pubic Libraries Using a Hierarchica Linear Mode: Appying Mutipe Regression Anaysis to a Muti-Leve Research Design (2000) (unpubished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Caifornia, Los Angees), microformed on UMI Dissertations No (UMI). The book s tite makes it sound more accessibe than the dissertation, doesn t it? I have ony ooked at the 24-page preview avaiabe through ProQuest s Digita Dissertations. By the way, Digita Dissertations is a very convenient service, and I encourage aw ibrarians to try it. A citation to a dissertation (found via Dissertation Abstracts on Diaog or Westaw, for instance) can often be usefu for ega researchers doing interdiscipinary work. This service is even better, since it adds to Dissertation Abstracts the 24-page preview in PDF. This enabes a professor who wants to ook at research from other discipines to get a good sense of a work before requesting an interibrary oan or a purchase from UMI. And I can confidenty cite Matt s dissertation, even without reading the whoe thing. 7. SAXTON & RICHARDSON, supra note 1, at Id. at 8 9.

4 298 Law Library Journa [Vo. 95:2 (I admit that despite my ifeong ove of math, I fipped past the equations rather quicky.) 10 Take heart, gente reader. We can earn from this study even if we don t understand a the detais of its anaysis. 11 We a know that many factors are ikey to be invoved in reference service. From our experience, we think it makes a difference, for instance, whether the patron is famiiar with ibraries, whether the ibrarian is courteous, and whether the question is hard. Saxton ooked at a of these factors, and more. Computer processing and socia science statistica software not avaiabe to eary researchers, of course made it possibe for him to anayze the reationships among many variabes across a sampe of thousands of queries. 12 He isted variabes of interest and devised measures for each one. For exampe, characteristics of the users education, famiiarity with the ibrary, and frequency of reference use were measured by a simpe questionnaire that ibrarians in the study gave to users. The questionnaire aso asked users to say whether they found everything they needed, whether they found usefu information, and whether they were satisfied with the service they received. Difficuty of the query and accuracy of the answer were judged by outside ibrarians who reviewed the sheets competed by ibrarians in the study. This technique acknowedged an important reaity: the questions users ask are not necessariy the same as questions cooked up by ibrary scientists, and the answers are not simpy right or wrong. In Saxton s study, answers were scored on a scae, aowing for the possibiity of answers that incuded some correct information or appropriate referras, rather than forcing everything to be taied in either the right coumn or the wrong coumn Here are the variabes Saxton measured. 10 Dependent variabes that is, the outcomes of the reference interaction utiity of the answer to the user competeness of the answer usefuness of the answer user s satisfaction with the service accuracy of the answer (as scored by the pane of outside ibrarians) Independent variabes that is, a range of inputs that might affect the dependent variabes above characteristics of the query query difficuty (as scored by the outside ibrarians) query currency 9. Responses were coded 7 (whoy accurate), 6 (partiay accurate), 5 (accurate referra), 4 (no answer), 3 (partiay inaccurate), 2 (inaccurate referra), or 1 (inaccurate). Id. at Id. at

5 ] Learning from Library Science 299 characteristics of the ibrarian s behavior 11 (measured from the user questionnaire) readiness interest understanding verification characteristics of the user frequency of ibrary use frequency of use of reference service education eve characteristics of individua ibrarians (measured in a ibrarian questionnaire) hours of experience in reference education eve characteristics of individua ibraries coection size service eve 12 service poicy 13 Just isting a of the variabes shows the compexity and ambitious scope of the study. But that s its beauty. Reference is compex, after a. 14 Once Saxton had gathered his data, he did a ot of anaysis. Here is where many of us can skip over the hard parts. I am wiing to trust that he understood and correcty appied the statistica tests. I have some confidence in the system: his adviser (who became his coauthor) surey must have demanded rigor, and the dissertation committee must have done so, too. Likewise the pubisher. So I wi take his word that resuts he tes us are significant are, in fact, significant. I do not have to understand the methodoogy used by epidemioogists to beieve that frequent hand washing and an annua fu shot wi probaby keep me heathier in the winter. 11. These factors are based on Ad Hoc Comm. on Behaviora Guides for Reference & Info. Services, Reference & Adut Services Div., Am. Library Ass n, Guideines for Behaviora Performance of Reference and Information Services Professionas, 36 RQ 200, (1996), avaiabe at [hereinafter RUSA Behaviora Guideines]. Saxton and Richardson refer to these as the RUSA behaviora guideines, which might confuse peope who do not foow the American Library Association cosey. The Reference and Adut Services Division (RASD) changed its name to Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) in fa This variabe s measure was based on ibrarians answers to a questionnaire about their institutions typica service eve e.g., a 4 was assigned for Guides readers to the stacks, recommends particuar works, answers ready-reference questions, consuts sources, and provides instruction. SAXTON & RICHARDSON, supra note 1, at This variabe s measure was based on ibrarians responses to a question about how their ibraries articuated service poicies ranging from 7 ( The ibrary has deveoped a comprehensive written reference poicy that ceary estabishes job expectations. ) to 2 ( Traditions of service are passed wordof-mouth among staff members with a ow degree of uniformity in understanding regarding poicy. ) and 1 ( The ibrary has no service poicy of any kind. ). Id. at 66.

6 300 Law Library Journa [Vo. 95:2 Likewise, I don t have to understand a of the statistica anaysis in this book in order to earn from it One step in the anaysis ed Saxton to create some composite variabes. For instance, the measures of the ibrarians behavior was the ibrarian ready, interested, etc.? were correated sufficienty to be roed into one measure. 15 The user characteristics of frequency of ibrary use and frequency of reference use were aso combined into one measure Saxton dropped the measure that was supposed to capture how current the needed information had to be. In ony a sma portion of queries did it make any difference in predicting accuracy, user satisfaction, or usefuness. In fact, in the sampe amost a queries (97.2%) required information from a source that was updated ony annuay or ess frequenty. 17 My hunch is that a simiar study in aw ibraries woud have yieded a different resut. We are often asked to ocate or to hep patrons ocate an act from this year s egisature, a bi that s pending in Congress, a case that was just decided. Even when the answer turns out to be in the bound voume, we emphasize the need to check the pocket part and interim suppement just in case. 17 The next stage of number-crunching is where it reay gets interesting. Here s where Saxton addresses the issues we care about. What difference does any of it make? 18 First, accuracy. What is ikey to make a reference ibrarian s answers more accurate? The ibrarian s education? Experience? The patron s experience and education? The size of the ibrary? No, none of these things seemed to make much difference. The ony variabe that was found to predict the accuracy of the ibrarian s response was the difficuty of the query. 18 Easier questions were more often answered accuratey. The authors note the possibiity that the ibrarians who scored accuracy and difficuty even created that correation themseves that is, that they saw a question that was bunged as a difficut one. 19 Overa, the news about accuracy was very good: In this study, over 90% of the reference queries were judged to be competey accurate or partiay accurate or provided the user with an accurate referra to another agency Customer satisfaction, variousy measured, turns out to be highy correated with the ibrarian s behavior or at east the user s perceptions of the ibrarian s behavior. (Reca that the measures for ibrarian s behavior were based on user questionnaires.) When ibrarians foowed the RUSA behaviora guideines, Uh-oh, I m taking about cognitive authority again. See Mary Whisner, Back s, Bouvier s, and Tinkerbe, 92 LAW LIBR. J. 99, 2000 LAW LIBR. J SAXTON & RICHARDSON, supra note 1, at Id. 17. Id. at Id. at Id. 20. Id. at RUSA Behaviora Guideines, supra note 11.

7 ] Learning from Library Science 301 users were more ikey to say that they had found usefu information, that they had found a the information they needed, and that they were satisfied with the service they received. From this, Saxton and Richardson concude that we shoud be emphasizing the reference interview more in ibrary education and professiona deveopment. Library schoo reference casses and staff training shoud devote attention to behaviora skis, not just sources. 22 I think that the finding about accuracy suggests that we shoud sti pay enough attention to sources to be abe to work on our accuracy, for we cannot get patrons to ask ony easy questions. 20 As a practitioner of the art of reference, I woud have iked to see some anecdota evidence in addition to the compied data. The study had 2159 queries that were scored for difficuty and accuracy. I d ove to know what some of them were, even if giving a few exampes woud not be statisticay rigorous. What are typica questions in a pubic ibrary? What questions count as easy? What questions were scored as difficut? A few iustrations sprinked through the text might make it more accessibe to ibrarians in the fied. 21 Few of us reference ibrarians engage in the sort of research that Saxton and Richardson have done. Many of us cannot even understand a of the statistica anayses. And yet we can and shoud earn from their work. Let s watch for new studies that expore other aspects of the reference process. And et s encourage the researchers to spread the word about their resuts. 22. SAXTON & RICHARDSON, supra note 1, at 99, 101.

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