I liked Gremmels & Lehmann’s article (2007), rethinking the whole 55% reference accuracy study that people are still citing today. It seemed, from when I read the 55% article, that they were counting only the answers that actually answered the question as accurate, and all answers that were not quite enough as inaccurate. I agree with Gremmels & Lehmann that accuracy ratings should include all skills-teaching and resource-sharing as accurate answers–which apparently brings the rating up to 90%. That’s much more like it.
For one thing, it’s not fair to rank reference librarians poorly because the information may not actually exist. Or even when the information does exist, it doesn’t exist in a findable state (which is as good as non-existence). However, instead of turning patrons away empty handed, the librarians can at least teach patrons how to use relevant resources that may answer any related questions. And if this satisfies the patrons, then that’s good enough.
Sometimes all the patrons want are “good enough” answers in 2 minutes, instead of a 30 minute long search for an authoritative resource. Sometimes the patrons ask one question but really want an answer to another question that’s not asked. These kinds of reference interactions can adversely affect the reference librarian’s accuracy score. Sometimes all the patrons want is our help framing a Google search! I’ve seen this happen at public libraries.
Once, when I was a page and had to help staff the circulation counter (we were short on funds city-wide), somebody came up to the reference desk wanting to find something out about a drug, just for her own edification. I forget what exactly she wanted to learn. One librarian tried to help her, by handing her a copy of the Physician Desk Reference (PDR), and showed her how she could look up drugs. She looked through it, and couldn’t find the right entry, and besides, it was hard to make sense of the information in there. So the librarian brought in her coworker for consultation, and they both looked it up at various authoritative drug resources–which basically was the same information in the PDR but online. It still wasn’t quite right, and she thought the drugs they found online wasn’t quite right. They all spent a lot of time trying to answer her question. Thankfully, the patron was very nice about it, though she was getting frustrated. 10 minutes until closing, she came up to the circulation counter to check out books. I asked her if she was able to find everything alright, and she said, not really, and explained what the librarians couldn’t find, and that what they found was hard to understand. I already knew quite a bit of this from observation, but this was when I found out all she wanted the info, and she wasn’t picky about where it was from.
It was quiet at the library, so I knew I had enough time to help her before we locked up. I asked, I’m not a librarian, but I might be able to help. Wikipedia probably has what you’re looking for, but it’s not authoritative. And if you’re doing this for an assignment, most professors won’t accept it. She said it was fine–she didn’t care if it was an “official” resource. I looked for it on Wikipedia, and this was when I figured out, from her information and from Wikipedia, that there was a similarly-named drug that did something completely different. This was what the librarians kept finding, and that’s why it wasn’t working in the first place. They were researching the wrong drug! So I Googled, found the right name spelling, plugged it back into Wikipedia (and found the right entry. And within the first 3 paragraphs, was exactly what she was looking for! She was so happy. I showed her how she could trace the footnote to an authoritative source, how she could click on the link and find it, and we could help her get it if she wants to trace it back on another day. I restated that Wikipedia isn’t necessarily authoritative, and she acknowledged it. I printed out the Wikipedia entry, gave it to her, and she went happily on her way as the library closed.
This was my first reference interaction, and I learned that sometimes all they want is a “good enough” answer. The librarians were shocked that I even went to Wikipedia, admonishing me for it, but I explained that she gave her full consent that she just wanted a “good enough” answer. And she was happy. And I taught the librarians how to trace the footnotes just as I taught the patron.
Long story, but I hope it illustrates how sometimes all patrons want are good enough questions, so long as you do make sure that is what they want, and that you still offer to find an authoritative source for them during the process.
Gremmels, G., & Lehmann, K. (2007). “Assessment of student learning from reference services.” College and research libraries. 68(6). p. 488-502. Retrieved from: http://crl.acrl.org/content/68/6/488.short