Boyd, Rhonda S. (2005, July/August). Assessing the True Nature of Information Transactions at a Suburban Library. Public Libraries, p. 234-240.
Gwinnett County Public Library (GCPL) in Georgia designed a study to test the anecdotal hypothesis that reference questions were getting more in-depth as patrons relied on the internet to answer quick-fact questions. The nature of these questions would be assessed to develop better training and to better identify the skill set needed to staff the reference desk. Ultimately, the goal of the study was to more efficiently provide service. Staff perceptions of types of questions were gathered. The most common observations were that traditional print reference was less frequent than complex, in-depth questions requiring technology; that questions were more about access than about information; tech troubleshooting questions were common; time was spent bridging cultural and language barriers; and that staff was interacting with machines. The study required staff to note the age of the questioner, categorize each question (categories defined as readers' advisory, reference, access to equipment, access to resources, and services and processes), assign a value to its complexity, and note the length of time required to answer the question. Despite the author's (and the staff's) expectations, more time was spent on short (less than fifteen minute) questions. Readers' advisory was the least frequently asked question. Over half of the questions were not traditional library questions, and involved access to equipment and resources and services and policies. Boyd acknowledges some challenges with the study design – each transaction gets one category, which is limiting; the data was self-reported, leaving room for errors and inconsistency. Nonetheless, GCPL used the results of the study to recommend changes in the training of staff, including issues with technology and community newcomers; technology training for patrons; marketing the capabilities of the reference librarians to the patrons; and rethinking the allocation of duties.
I like that this study disproved something we have been taught in basic reference, that questions are fewer, but harder. (Or maybe they are harder, depending on your relationship with computers.) I was very surprised by the low number of readers' advisory questions; although I have received hardly any in my internship. I wonder about the depth of reporting the staff was allowed – if a patron comes up to ask you to put a hold on a book (#2
most common question at the desk, next to asking for a guest pass – although that's also anecdotal), and you say, that's the last book in the series, hey, have you read this one?, does that count as readers' advisory?
Aside from methodology questions, I think it is important to understand the nature of questions asked at the desk. I like that Boyd suggested making patrons aware of the kinds of questions librarians can answer – usually the answer is just to cut service. (Although did I read it wrong, or has GCPL replaced librarians with library associates?) I also think that these results should not only increase technology and cultural training, but also re-training in print reference sources. Maybe everyone is tired of me complaining about how the internet is NOT a panacea, but maybe these questions are in-depth and complex because the answer is not most efficiently found online? Maybe you sometimes need a Bible concordance, and it's just easier to use it in print?