Friday, February 11, 2011

Article Note: On reference service preferences

Citation for the article:

Granfield, Diane, and Mark Robertson, "Preference for Reference: New Options and Choices for Academic Library Users." Reference & User Services Quarterly 48.1 (Fall 2008): 44-53.

Read online.

This article looks at library users' help-seeking preferences. Do they prefer to go to the reference desk? Do they prefer using virtual reference? It is looking at that type of question. The study reported is based on an in-person survey and an online survey. Four focus groups were conducted after the surveys. Note that the authors found it easier to do the online survey, which was implemented with a pop-up after VR sessions, than to do the in-person surveys after reference transactions. As I was reading the article, I thought that it would be a good idea for us to conduct a similar survey here. However, with issues like survey fatigue (campus administration here surveys students on just about anything to the point of oversaturation) and logistics (time, staff, the usual), I do not see it happening for now. Yet I think we could learn a few useful things, so I may just have to table the idea for the moment.

The article opens with the usual picture of the 1990s as a time of transition for reference services, the rise of the Web and digital content, and the new digital natives generation. The authors go on to state that virtual reference (VR) is one of the significant recent developments. However, in spite of VR's popularity, questions about its cost effectiveness persist as well as other questions. I have looked at some of those questions before. In fact, I have expressed some questions and concerns in regards to the consortial VR service that we participate in, and those concerns, such as staffing models and librarian engagement, still persist. The project is an administrative darling, so we may be stuck with a service that is not really serving our own students locally and overall has low usage for a while. Thus this article interested me as it addressed service preferences, plus it could be useful for some evidence down the road.

This item from the literature review caught my eye. It is from a small survey (340 users) done by Ruppel and Fagan that the authors cite:

"An astounding 29 percent thought staff did not look helpful at the physical reference desk and 17 percent did not want to go to the library building to do their research. In spite of these negative perceptions,  the physical reference desk had a clear advantage for most users because of the 'personal touch'" (qtd. in 46). 

Other notes I found interesting:

  • This may also have to do with how accessible and/or user-friendly we make our library websites. This is on other self-help options that users might employ for their research needs that the authors included in their survey. "Among the response options, consulting information on the library website was included as wll as searching Google or another Internet search engine. These options were included because it was felt that our users may increasingly seek answers to what would reference questions by employing self-help strategies and consulting sources on the Internet (whether they are sites we have constructed ourselves or popular external sites" (48). 
  • The survey confirmed that graduate students prefer to work outside the library. Thus they rate VR higher (50). What I wonder is how many of these grad students are distance learners versus on campus. For instance, here, our nursing doctorate program is all online, so the students would use phone and VR to get a hold of librarians for reference help in addition to what they get via the website, which includes our Research Guides (powered by LibGuides) and use of tools like Elluminate; the campus recently paid for Elluminate and is actively promoting it. Our nursing liaison librarian makes use of it. I suppose this would fall under a form of VR since it can be interactive. 
  • On VR staffing, for us, we do staff our VR away from the reference desk for the most part. However, at the reference desk we also tend to the reference e-mail and naturally the phone. I wonder if scenarios like this, which I am sure are not unique for us, have an effect on the unfavorable rating that e-mail and phone service got in the survey (50). 
  • The article's conclusion seems a bit of a draw: "The reference desk continues to be the most popular method of getting help in the library, but our findings confirm that VR satisfies a niche for some users, quite likely those who prefer to work outside the library" (51). This seems kind of a statement of the obvious: if you like to work out of the library and use VR, you will rate that higher than the reference desk. However, overall, the reference desk is still the preferred method of getting help in the library. 

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