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

Executive summary

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

  1. Define the concept of reference work
  2. Clarify the purpose of reference statistics
  3. Develop informative reference indicators, at the local, regional and national level
  4. Design efficient data collection methods
  5. Collect data - on a regular basis
  6. Analyze data to establish patterns and trends in reference services - on a regular basis
  7. Compare indicator values between libraries, regions and nations - on a regular basis
  8. 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.

  1. The average Norwegian asks 0.8 reference questions a year.
  2. 0.8 questions a year seems to be a typical rate - similar values are found in Great Britain, the United States, Canada and Australia.
  3. The average library employee answers two reference questions per hour with the public.
  4. At least one third of the questions from the general public concern practical information about the library rather than reference.
  5. Most physical reference transactions are brief - lasting less than 3 minutes.
  6. Most virtual reference transactions are long - lasting half an hour or more.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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 average adult.
  10. 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.

Print version 1-7 - Print version 8-18

Table of contents

  1. Executive summary
  2. Cultural statistics
    • Knowledge societies
    • Library statistics
    • Library activities
    • Statistics of library use
  3. The concept of reference work
    • A fuzzy concept
    • Standards and boundaries
    • Orientation questions
    • Basic reference
    • Professional reference
  4. The purpose of reference statistics
  5. Reference indicators
    • Questions/inhabitant
    • Questions/visit
    • Questions /employee
    • Transaction times
  6. Data collection methods
    • Annual estimates
    • Duration
    • Content and cost
  7. Contexts and categories
    • User groups
    • User contexts
    • Categories of daily life
    • Personal knowledge
    • Types of assistance
  8. The structure of demand
  9. Learning A: School assigments
    • Literature, culture and society
    • Science, technology and data
    • Standard questions
  10. Learning B: Student projects
  11. Daily life A: Document questions
    • Poetry and song
    • Difficult boooks
  12. Daily life B: Interests and problems
    • Genealogy and local history
    • Hobbies and leisure
    • Cultural curiosity
    • Scientific curiosity
    • Problem solving
  13. Work tasks
  14. Comparison A: Virtual and physical
  15. Comparison B: Norway and Sweden
  16. Comparison C: ATL and Google Answers
  17. Conclusions
    • Reference as a market
    • Acting on the results
  18. Notes, data sets and bibliography


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 4, 2002