How to Fix Reference

At the ACRL-NEC conference I attended recently there was a fair amount of talk about decreasing reference usage. I suppose I have heard rumblings about this, but I didn’t realize how serious a problem in many places. At Champlain College where I work, our reference usage stats are increasing, and I think some of the things we are doing could help other libraries as well.

First, it helps that we get to see students almost every semester through our revolutionary information literacy program spearheaded by Sarah Cohen. Students get used to seeing a librarian and realize that we can help them. Instruction is very closely tied to reference. Re-evaluate what and how much you are doing in the classroom. Don’t just tell students there are databases available to them. Tell them WHY Google is not always the best place to get information. Make the case for libraries.

Second, professors give assignments that require library resources or that students must talk to a librarian. I think this one would be the most beneficial for anyone in increasing their reference usage. Forcing students to use the library is a great way to help them try it out and see how beneficial using the library can be. I constantly see students amazed at how useful the library is after they get over the idea that “it’s all on Google.” One student even found that using the library was quicker than searching online because they didn’t have to wade through all the “useless websites.” So, talk to your professors. Ask them to build the library into their assignments. They’ll be rewarded with better student work and you’ll be rewarded with a busy reference desk. I know we are.

Finally, we record reference statistics differently from other libriaries I have worked at. Instead of doing the tally method we are using Zoho Creator to easily create a form to record every reference encounter. This form collects all the data and you can export it easily into an Excel spreadsheet. This makes data collection simple, but it also allows you to see what stories your numbers are telling.


I made up a graph With the help of my good bud Chris Campion I made up a a graph in Excel using our data and we can see that a good percentage of our questions are coming through chat. You can also look at other things like “when are the bulk of your questions coming in?” Are you getting a lot of questions later at night? Perhaps you might want to discuss changing your reference hours to support this trend in the data.

These are just a few ideas, but they seem to be working for us. What’s working at your library, or what isn’t working?


ACRL-NEC 2009 Conference

Twitter on the big screen

The 2009 ACRL New England Chapter conference was entitled Are you being served? Customer satisfaction and library service. I believe this theme of customer service  is becoming increasingly important, not only in libraries but in business as well.

The morning worskshop I attended was presented by Sara Laughlin, and it was called Tools for Understanding Your Customers. It was a hands on workshop in which the participants learned different ways to find out information about who their customers are and what they want. She broke down market research into six approaches:

  • Survey
  • Existing Data (yours and others’)
  • Interview
  • Focus Group
  • Observation
  • Comments/complaints

We were able to look at these approaches in depth and recognize the pros and cons of each. Understanding your patrons is key to serving them well. Libraries need to use marketing tools just like other businesses so they can know and tailor their service to their patrons.

The annual business meeting followed lunch at which I was recognized for being awarded the ACRL National Conference Scholarship. This scholarship allowed  me to attend both this conference and the ACRL National Conference in Seattle, for which I am truly grateful.

The afternoon consisted of a plenary session in which all the people who attended different sessions brought their findings and questions together to share with the group. They also used Twitter to enhance the session and projected tweets onto the big screen, which I thought was an excellent addition to the discussion.

I found Anne Washburne‘s insights to be the most helpful. She said that “people are forgetting how to be nice to each other.” Customer service is about treating people with kindness. But this also applies in your workplace. She stated that anyone can be a change agent, just by owning their work environment and being positive. This means not going into work making excuses and complaining but coming in purposefully everyday and realizing that everyday you can make a change. I know I was a little inspired.

The conference wrapped up with a social hour which I thought was very beneficial. I was able to meet a lot of different people from around New England who are doing some pretty cool things. I also may have volunteered for helping to get a stronger ACRL-NEC presence in Northern New England. I know that even in the Burlington area we have five colleges and we do not collaborate as much as we should. I would like to see a stronger cohesion and simply more conversation among us simply because I think we can learn a lot from each other and it would allow all of us to serve our customers better.


Wolfram Alpha

There is a new search engine that has just launched called Wolfram Alpha. As opposed to being a “Google killer” it creates its own niche. Google serves up webpages relevant to your query. Wolfram Alpha seeks to “to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable and accessible to everyone.” In other words it is good for queries that you want to compute and understand in depth. It breaks your query down into the key facts about it.

I put in my birth date this morning and it gave me relevant computations about that day including how many days ago it was, notable events, the sunrise and sunset, and that it was a “waxing gibbous moon.” I can see this being a very powerful tool for doing more in depth and especially precise research.

The goal of the Wolfram Alpha folks “is to build on the achievements of science and other systematizations of knowledge to provide a single source that can be relied on by everyone for definitive answers to factual queries.” It is a very ambitious project and am excited to see where it goes in the future. Give it a try!