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Phone the library, but don't expect it to refer to a book

A poll of HE libraries that repeated a survey of 21 years ago finds three of five offering correct answers. Chloe Stothart and Sarah Cunnane report

The march of Wikipedia and Google into university libraries has been highlighted by a Times Higher Education survey.

The magazine repeated a survey first carried out 21 years ago by the head of learning resources at what was then North London Polytechnic. In both cases 20 university libraries were telephoned at random by a caller posing as a student, and were asked for the answers to several questions - 15 each in the old survey and four in the new one.

No library answered all four questions correctly in the latest poll. Correct answers were given to 58 per cent of questions in the 2008 survey compared with 61 per cent of answers to four equivalent questions in 1987.

Only two of 20 libraries were able to provide the correct boiling point of ethanol, making it the most incorrectly answered question in the 2008 survey, whereas only two libraries provided the wrong answer in the original poll.

Wikipedia proved the undoing of most libraries on this question because the libraries quoted the figure given in its entry, which was incorrect at the time of the survey. However, a sample of ten reference books in the original study had supplied four different answers to this question.

In the new survey, the questions "Cyril Hinshelwood won the Nobel prize in which category?" and "'All the world's a stage/And all the men and women merely players' is a quotation from which Shakespeare play?" produced the most correct answers, with 16 respondents in the 2008 survey answering correctly.

Library staff consulted the web to supply answers in the majority of cases.

In the middle of the pack was the question "Who is the current Cabinet Minister for Transport?", which yielded 12 correct answers. Some of the incorrect responses were supplied because one of the first names to come up on a Google search was the Junior Transport Minister, not the Secretary of State. In 1987 the same question about the Transport Minister of the day elicited the lowest number of correct replies.

In the new survey, only four of 80 responses were made with the aid of a book.

The University of Warwick's library earned plaudits for knowing the answer to the Nobel laureate question without looking it up. Warwick is home to a specialist electronic collection on winners of the prize in chemistry.

Shakespeare fans at the universities of St Andrews, Birmingham and East Anglia knew the origin of the quotation off the top of their heads. But a few specialist librarians provided the wrong answers to the questions about their subjects.

Unlike its older counterpart, the 2008 survey also tested customer service and found exemplary helpfulness alongside rudeness. Several institutions called their subject specialist librarians to the phone or rang back. But one university's librarian seemed bemused as to why anyone would telephone a library with a question, several refused to answer or said they did not provide help by phone, while another became irate. One said: "I'm not being funny, but if you want to know so badly you should find out yourself."

Jane Core, director of library and learning services at Northumbria University, said that some libraries used non-librarians to answer the telephones, but added that libraries needed clear policies on how to handle inquiries - for example, passing callers from the person answering the phone to an inquiries desk and then perhaps a specialist librarian.

Commenting on the high use of Wikipedia and Google as the sole source of answers, she said that libraries should help students to use a range of sources and to judge the information they find critically. "With the internet, in particular, people have more choice than ever so they need more skills than ever to evaluate what they find. We get fewer phone calls than before, but it is still a legitimate way of coming into inquiry services and should be treated quite seriously," she said.

Roy Williams, the librarian who carried out the original research, said: "Twenty years ago, we probably had only 4,000 students at London Met; there are now 28,000. The challenge for libraries is to provide an individual tailored service in a mass education system, which is very difficult but can be done."

He thought that libraries were now more geared to answering questions by e-mail than by telephone, although he added that phone inquiries were not a big feature of libraries at the time of his research.

He chose his questions because the answers were factual and straightforward but needed to be looked up from standard reference sources. His study was inspired by similar tests of US libraries.

Chris Powis, deputy director of academic services at the University of Northampton, said: "I am quite surprised that they just looked on Wikipedia. I would expect people to understand what it is and why it might be a good idea to double-check anything from there. But I suspect nothing has changed with libraries' approach to questions. I think there would always have been some librarians going for quick answers."

He added that he was astonished that some libraries did not think it was their role to answer questions by phone. "I think responsiveness to students has got better, so I am surprised at that," he said.

CorrectIncorrectHelp refusedBook usedWeb used
What is the boiling point of ethanol%3F(78.32C)2126212
Who is the Cabinet Minister for Transport%3F (Ruth Kelly)12 62016
Cyril Hinshelwood was awarded the Nobel prize in which category%3F (chemistry)1613116
‘All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players’ is from which Shakespeare play%3F (As You Like It)1604113
Research: Sarah Cunnane

CorrectPartially correctIncorrectNo answer
What is the boiling point of ethanol%3F (cited as 78.5C in 1987)18-2-
Who is the Secretary of State for Transport%3F (John Moore)6-14-
Was Professor Frederick Sangar the last Briton to win the Nobel Prize for Chemistry%3F(No, Aaron Klug in 1982)18-11
What is the source of the quote ‘The innocent and the beautiful have no enemy but time’%3F (W.B.Yeats’s %3Ci%3EIn Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz%3C/i%3E)7418
Source: %3Ci%3ELibrary and Information Research News%3C/i%3E 1987, vol 10, issue 37/38

Readers' comments (12)

  • Although I agree completely that libraries should be delivering a high level of customer service to library users, no matter which route they use to approach the library, this survey seems to be based around an old-fashioned idea of the library reference service.

    I think you would find that most libraries in UK HE Institutions do not explicitly provide this kind of reference service any more, and I'd expect a more common line of help to be to point the enquirer to resources they might use to find out the answer, rather than just look things up on behalf of the enquirer.

    Whether this is a good thing or not I suppose is open to question, but as demand increases and resources are stretched, having staff on hand to answer reference enquiries is a luxury that many libraries cannot afford.

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  • Most staff that answer the phones will be at the most junior level of library assistant, not a librarian. But more to the point, surely it is more the job of a library to point the user in the right direction - which will help them again in the future, and not answer it for them.

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  • I wonder if the same results would have been found with Public Libraries? The role of a library in an educational institution is surely broader than just answering factual questions - it must be to help enquirers (students) learn for themselves how to answer such questions. Whereas the role of a Public Library is surely more oriented towards just providing the answers?

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  • I am an Information Asistant in a University Library and I often answer the phone when I am on duty at the Issue Desk. It is not my job, nor that of the qualified Librarians, to answer questions of this nature. If a student asked me where to find out that information, I would point them to our Reference section or to online resources, like Google. I wouldn't just answer the question, even if I knew the answer.

    The only one I knew off the top of my head is that the Shakespeare quote is from Macbeth. The rest I would Google.

    We also spend a lot of time teaching students how to search online and how to evaluate the findings.

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  • The Shakespeare quote isn't from Macbeth, Elizabeth!
    It's Jacques speech in As You Like It.

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  • Being old-fashioned, I do still believe that in general we should retrieve, manipulate, package appropriately, and deliver data and information to enquirers. The modern concept that librarians should now be (untrained) teachers rather than information specialists is fashionable, and has helped in the disappearance of subject specialist librarians at several UK universities on the ground that students can "google". Years ago we were taught to ensure (repeat ensure) that enquirers received the full and accurate information which they required, which may indeed have included personally taking them through the process and the best alternative sources. Merely referring them to one resource does not do that. By the way, internationally there are dozens of surveys over the years indicating that our accuracy rate is poor; what chance do non-information specialists have? Maybe I've just enjoyed the hunt as well as the educational function.

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  • The reference interview should elicit more about who is asking, and what information they need. Perhaps the flash point of ethanol is also required. Is the enquirer an undergraduate, the Vice-Chancellor's PA, or a mystery shopper. Where has the enquirer looked already. Are they [un]aware of appropriate sources they can access, online or in the library.

    A subject librarian would probably not dole out an answer, but direct an undergraduate to reliable sources, supporting independent learning and development of their academic skills.

    Just for the record in the earlier survey, that would have been "Sanger" not Sangar?

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  • Interesting survey, but perhaps it jumps to conclusions about the definition of an enquiry service.

    It does not help an enquirer if you simply supply the answer to them - how do they then learn or develop their understanding? Directing them where they may find it, or working with them to locate the information, is of more use and will help them retrieve similar answers in the future.

    I agree that you would suggest different sources depending on who is asking and what they need to know - what is appropriate for a member of the public may not be appropriate for a serious academic researcher at PhD level.

    However, just refusing to help with 'find it yourself' does no one credit!

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  • I'm also concerned that the online CRC Handbook of Chemistry & Physics gives the BP of ethanol as 78.29 (Section 15 Laboratory solvents ...) 88th edition.

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  • The boiling point of a liquid is a function of pressure. I wonder if any of the library staff asked the enquirer if they wanted the boiling point of ethanol at standard atmospheric pressure (760 mmHg) and reminded them to take into account their altitude and the weather?! Probably not, because most likely neither the library staff nor the journalist knew that. A better response would have been to point the enquirer towards reliable sources for the answer, rather than just supply the answer. "Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime"

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