Reference transactions, such as they are

A quick little item based on Chapter 2 (The Overall Picture) in Give Us a Dollar and We’ll Give You Back Four (2012-13):

There’s very little question There seems to be a common assumption that reference transactions have declined over the years in public as well as academic libraries (slowly for public libraries). That may be entirely reasonable: web resources make it much easier for patrons to answer more of their own questions.

Inserted October 1: Oops. I went back and looked at the IMLS figures for 1999, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010. Reference transactions per capita in public libraries may be declining, but that’s not the clear trend for raw figures.

Yes, there was a drop from FY2009 to FY2010–but the drop is only about 0.2%, 686 thousand out of 309.99 million. And that follows a more than 2% increase from FY2008 to FY2009: from 301 million to nearly 310 million. And a similar increase from FY2007 to FY2008: from 292.48 million to 301.01 million.

Ah, but there’s a 1% decline from FY2006 (294.99 million) to FY2007 (292.48 million)–and a 2.5% decline from FY2005 (303.51 million) to FY2006 (294.99 million). Jumping back to 1999, there were 294.6 million transactions.

So: Long-term trend? Unclear. What is fairly clear: Reference transactions haven’t been growing as rapidly as circulation–but they’re not disappearing either.

Back in 1995, I posited that robust public libraries averaged more than two reference transactions per capita and that strong ones averaged 1.3 to two transactions. But only 9% of public libraries averaged at least two reference transactions per capita in FY2010, and only 10% more averaged 1.25 to 1.99 transactions.

I suspect one reference question for every two (potential) patrons may be a reasonable measure of fairly strong activity; just over half of the libraries did at least that much reference.

Still, there’s a distinct correlation between expenditures per capita and reference transactions; perhaps better-funded libraries are able to staff reference desks (or combined service desks) more consistently and offer roving reference.

At one extreme, libraries averaging two or more reference transactions per capita had a median expenditure of $54.13 per capita; those averaging less than 0.06 (that is, fewer than six reference questions per hundred patrons) had a median expenditure of $18.62. The expenditures table once again shows consistent change: the more a library spends, the more reference questions it’s likely to answer.

[We'll move on to chapters 3-19, each covering roughly 510 libraries serving about the same number of people, real soon now.]

4 Responses to “Reference transactions, such as they are”

  1. rcn Says:

    Does the term “reference transaction” include face-to-face, telephone, email, chat, and text reference modes?

  2. waltcrawford Says:

    The PDF defining terms in the IMLS public library dataset says “Total reference transactions.” That may be further defined in instructions for libraries; I wouldn’t know. My assumption would be that it includes all forms.

  3. Rochelle Hartman Says:

    Yes, we record all reference transactions–regardless of how the patron gets to us and report that number in our annual report. Public library, if that makes a difference.

  4. waltcrawford Says:

    Thanks, Rochelle. That was my assumption. (And, AFAIK, it’s only public libraries that have this sort of national uniform survey. Not that I’d know…)


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