Conventional wisdom is that reference transactions have been falling in general, in both academic libraries and public libraries. That wisdom is so strongly perceived that some academic librarians are startled to find substantial increases in reference activity (primarily “virtual” reference, which is just as real as any other sort of reference but isn’t done face-to-face in person).
And, much as I’m a skeptic when it comes to conventional wisdom, I sort of assumed this was probably true–but that the public library decline was fairly slow.
And I made that assumption when posting this piece of commentary on Give Us a Dollar and We’ll Give You Back Four (2012-13)–namely the first sentence, “There’s very little question that reference transactions have declined over the years in public as well as academic libraries (slowly for public libraries).”
Reference transactions per capita may well be declining over the long term; I don’t know enough about that to comment intelligently. But as for total reference transactions…well, I wrote that after glancing at totals for FY2009 and FY2010, where there was indeed a decline. A very small decline, roughly 0.2% (that is, 2 out of every thousand), or 686 thousand out of 309 million.
I’ve now crossed out the first four words and replaced them with “There seems to be a common assumption” and added the following clarification:
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.
Note that this sloppy assumption is only an error in my commentary and involves changes over time, which are explicitly not part of what this book is all about.