Web version. For print version, go to: ch.
1-7 + ch. 8-18
Why do you ask?
Reference statistics for library planning
Paper for IFLA Statistics section, Glasgow, 2002
Tord Høivik, Oslo University College
The full paper is addressed to everybody who is interested in the
future of reference services, both within and outside the library
sector. The final proposals for action are addressed to those who
have the power to act: library managers and library authorities. Since
executives are short of time, I list the proposals here (Table A).
Table A. Proposals for action
- Define the concept of reference work
- Clarify the purpose of reference statistics
- Develop informative reference indicators, at the local, regional
and national level
- Design efficient data collection methods
- Collect data - on a regular basis
- Analyze data to establish patterns and trends in reference services
- on a regular basis
- Compare indicator values between libraries, regions and nations
- on a regular basis
- Act on the results
We touch upon all these points in the paper. But our main aim is
to study no. 6 - current patterns and trends in reference services.
Who are the users? What do they ask? Why do they ask? By analyzing
questions and answers from virtual reference logs we get access to
the operational details of reference work. How much time and effort
do we spend on different user groups and purposes? Do the facts correspond
to our policies? And what should be done in the future? Our data come
mainly from Ask The Library (ATL), a national virtual reference desk
(VRD) that has been operated by Oslo Public Library (OPL) since 1998.
Table B. Empirical findings. Illustrations.
- The average Norwegian asks 0.8 reference questions a year.
- 0.8 questions a year seems to be a typical rate - similar values
are found in Great Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia.
- The average library employee answers two reference questions per
hour with the public.
- At least one third of the questions from the general public concern
practical information about the library rather than reference.
- Most physical reference transactions are brief - lasting less
than 3 minutes.
- Most virtual reference transactions are long - lasting half an
hour or more.
- In Norway and Sweden, the general public mainly use the service
in support of personal interests and hobbies. Less than one fifth
of their questions concern personal problems. Questions about community
affairs are rare.
- The most active users of reference services are pupils with school
assignments. In Norway, their rate of usage is 6-7 times as high
as that of the average adult.
- In Norway and Sweden, people at work rarely use public reference
services. Their rate of usage is 6-7 times lower than that of the
- In Oslo, virtual and physical reference services for the general
public have similar patterns of usage.
In library research, the field of reference statistics is relatively
undeveloped. Since we want the results to be comparable and relevant
for other countries, we emphasize general concepts and generic methods.
The first part of the paper (sections 1-7) concentrates on methodology,
while the second applies the methods to ATL, with some comparative
data. We use, in other words, the Oslo case to illustrate a practical
way of working with reference data and statistics.
1-7 - Print version 8-18
Table of contents
The paper forms part of a larger project
studying Norwegian reference transactions. All translations from Norwegian
are my own. The data sets (questions) are available from the web version
of the paper.
Tord Høivik, Oslo University College, August