A narrative clarification on reference transactions

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.

5 Responses to “A narrative clarification on reference transactions”

  1. Michael Golrick Says:

    As someone who is back providing direct public service Reference on a daily basis, let me also note that what the statistics cannot show is the change in the nature of the questions.

    These days, many of the questions are more difficult, since the library user has already “Googled” their question. What they need is guidance through the “deep web” and the sophisticated databases often provided by either the state and often by consortia.

    Depending on who the public is, some of the transactions are now more technology teaching than “traditional” reference. They can range from dealing with how to get a resume in Word to look the way the library user wants, to helping them navigate the various state agency forms, to filling out job (and unemployment) applications on the computer with which they have little or no skill. Those are the changes which can only be measured in stories. And having said all that, I think I have talked myself into understanding the new demand for “outcomes measurement” as opposed to the old school statistical measures.

  2. ksol Says:

    As someone who works with library data, reference transaction data is problematic — often highly inconsistent from library to library and from year to year. Or even from person to person, since there’s a judgement call to be made on whether to record it. I’d hesitate to draw many conclusions from it. There’s a desire to keep recording it, because reference IS a valuable service, and it’s one that indicates that the librarian has value, not just the library. The numbers are pretty questionable, though.

  3. waltcrawford Says:

    That’s a point I tried to make in the commentary: Today’s reference transactions should be more difficult and more valuable. You’ve put it very well.

    Yes, outcomes measurement is more valuable than output/input measurements–but it’s also much more difficult to validate and do. That’s why I don’t regard this book as The Story–just as one tool for a library to help prepare it’s story in a way that hardheaded officials should find hard to argue with. But it’s really the thousands of individual stories, of how libraries change patrons’ lives, that provide the true worth of libraries.

  4. waltcrawford Says:

    ksol’s comment came in as I was responding to Michael’s comment.

    I guess what I’d say to ksol is that this is true of all countable/reportable library data, in one way or another. Some circulations matter more than others. Attendance at a program on job hunting may be a lot more valuable than attendance at a program on a bicycle tour of Corsica. (Which is more valuable? Lapsit storytime or a book club?) And yes, reference transactions and how they’re counted are highly variable–but that doesn’t make them meaningless or even (in my opinion) “pretty questionable” on the whole. It just means that the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

  5. Michael Golrick Says:

    And yes, Walt, the stories are important. I will also add that as a public library director for a quarter of a century, I certainly used all the data I could when talking to hard-headed (and hard-hearted) bean counters in municipal administration as well as with the politicians. The stories received a better response from the politicians, and the numbers from the bureaucrats.

    Oh, and thanks for the analysis. I always value your analysis.


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