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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

The Art of Delivering the Correct Answer

Annsofie Oscarsson
Swedish Library Association


This paper discusses two different studies of reference service performance in public libraries in Sweden, both of which indicates a low number of correct delivered answers, huge collections of irrelevant reference books, negligent attitudes, lack of further education for reference librarians. Various efforts have been made and projects have started in order to improve quality of reference service. Change in organizational structure, further education and communication improvement on different levels are suggested as possible factors to consider.


In Sweden, 27% of the questions asked at reference desks in public libraries, are correctly answered. This is the result from a study in 1995 promoted by the Swedish National Council for Cultural Affairs (Jansson). Similar results have beed presented from investigations in Norway (Salvesen) and Denmark (Elkaer), and a percentage of 50% for reference success is a common result from studies in Anglo-Saxon countries (Durrance). In Sweden we were fully aware of the results of earlier studies, and would have expected that a similar result would be most likely, but yet, facing the fact we felt very uncomfortable. This really was an unpleasant situation. Taking a look at the consequences, however, the effect turned out to be in the end positive.

The study was based on an unobtrusive test where 50 municipal libraries were included. The total amount of municipal libraries in Sweden is 288. The libraries in the study were chosen from municipalities with more than 15.000 inhabitants, with differing budgets.The questions asked were 6 in number and were supposed to have a certain connection. They should have the character of factual questions. The topic was Indonesia, export, import, international organization and aid, and the name of an Indonesian author. Finally there was a question about the regulation for lotteries in Sweden. The ways of solving the problems were considered and compared as well as the librarians attitudes towards the presumed patron, and of course the correctness of the answers delivered.

There were 2 hypotheses:

  1. The reference service in Swedish libraries is on a defensible level with reference to quality and

  2. The quality of the reference service is related to the size of the library.

None of these hypotheses was confirmed. The service is not on a defensible level, and the results had nothing to do with the economic means and the size of the library. The most striking result was the ignorant attitude of the librarians, in some cases the librarian hardly took notice of the presumed patron, in one case the librarian promised to get the information during the day and phone back, but did not keep his or her promise. The questions were in general from the librarians point of view considered to be complicated and hard to answer, and a common expression formed the title of the study: “This was a pretty hard question“.

The report awoke sensation and debate in the library world. Hardly had it been released until Svensk bokhandel, the newsletter of the Swedish book trade, presented an article where further education and training of reference librarians were pointed out as important.The journal of the Swedish library association, BBL, shortly after that presented various articles which invited to further debates. The daily press paid attention to the bad result. The important thing was, that the debates within the professional world were not items of explaining the facts away and making excuses for the miserable result. The debates were instead very constructive and have lead to various projects and fruitful and constructive discussions in the Swedish library world.

Another study of a different kind (Höglund) was carried out in 1996 in 6 main libraries in Middle Sweden. This study, on the contrary, was made in cooperation with the libraries and the reference librarians, and focused on the reference collections and the way of obtaining the answer, which reference book was consulted by patrons in comparison with librarians etc. The main results was, that reference literature is old and the reference collections are of great extension, there were no routines for sorting out unrelevant literature and no acquisition planning. It also was verified that the librarians lack further education, and besides, are unwilling to cooperate with other collegues and other institutions, to consult other people. They rather worked as a single players, which also was noticed in the first mentioned report.

What can be done do improve reference service? Well, first of all there is a need to identify quality. Quality has not really been focused on within non-profit organizations. Lately it has turned out to be important to find measures for areas that traditionally not have been measured. Quality in information service is one of those. To define quality it is important to find out what are the demands from the reciever, in our case the library visitor. We have to break the trend of letting library resources be the basis of our activities, and start from the other point of view, the expectations of the library client. Quality is a subjective concept and means different things to different people. Besides, quality concepts change and are related to, among other things, the role of the librarian. Should the exact answer be delivered or should the librarian adopt a pedagogical attitude?

It is also important to consider the world outside the libraries. Are the present results unique to library service. Have there been studies applied to other service institutions as post offices, transport, banks? Don’t you sometimes meet a rather arrogant attitude in some of these institutions, is the service offered there always of good quality? This is not a defense, but it is important to create a distance to your own situation. Is it that bad in comparision with other svervice organizations?

One of the projects directly related to the Jansson-report, is a pilote-project in which 3 municipal libraries in the Stockholm region are involved, and is sponsored by the Swedish Library Association and DIK which is a section of the Swedic Academic Central Organization. The intention is, to improve quality in their reference service. They will look at the service of a Pharmacy Company that have developed a client-oriented perspective and have improved their service considerably. The three libraries will also cooperate in developing their professional skill and they will also have a look at the reference collection.

Also at Ume_ university library, we have focused on quality in reference service. We have introduced regular meetings, where we are trying to map up the reference situation considering its place in the library and university organization, trying to identify factors in organization that have effects on reference output. We have defined abstract and concrete factors and have taken measures, both abstracts, as further education and attidude, discussions, and more concrete actions related to the physical environment, such as arrangement of PC:s, signs etc.

Cooperation is an important factor. Not only between colleagues within the own library, but also with other organizations, institutions and of course other libraries. In none of the libraries in the studies mentioned above, did the librarians adress to colleagues or other libraries. As to cooperation between public libraries and research libraries I think that a change is on its way. Traditionally in Sweden the education of public librarians and research librarians have been separated and there have been a clear barrier between the two types of libraries. In recent years the education is the same, it is regarded to be one single profession, and that will certainly have an effect on the cooperation and communication between libraries. Research libraries often have subject librarians and that may be a way to sort out and meet with the information explosion, but that makes cooperation still more important!

It is absolutely necessary for librarians to show our skills, and to market our service, but it is still more important that the product we provide is of high quality. The two studies referred to, made us aware of our important role, made us reflect and discuss and even act.


Durrance, J C: Reference success: does the 55 percent rule tell the story. In Library Journal 114(1989): april pp 31-36

Elkaer Hansen, L., Haag Jespersen, B., & Gade Svendsen, L., Referencearbejdets kvalitet - en unders gelse. Danmarks biblioteksskole, 1987

Höglund, Anna-Lena, Äntligen en riktig fr_ga. Länsbibliotek Östergötland, 1997

Jansson, B-L, Det här var sv_rt. Rapport fr_n Statens Kulturr_d 1996:3

Salvesen, G & Ulvik, S, Finner biblioteket svaret? Prosjektet Biblioteket finner svaret, Rapport 1, T nsberg, 1994