Dwindling Reference Questions

“If you build it, [will] they will come[?]”

As another season of baseball is just around the corner, I’ve been thinking about ways to get hits and avoid strikes—so decided to break out a classic quotation from Field of Dreams and apply it to academic libraries. In recent years, our library has seen dwindling reference questions. We’re not getting nearly the number of students at our front desk asking questions, nor making as many appointments with librarians, compared to pre-pandemic.

I’m not totally sure what to make of this. I can’t imagine students not needing library services, such as help with literature searching, questions about using databases, or help with citation management software. Not to pump our tires up too much, but these skills typically don’t come intuitively or out of thin air—at least at the level academic librarians support students. Our help is still needed, but without students seeking us out to get that help, we’re missing out on a huge number of opportunities to make students’ lives easier. We want to help.

I suspect that in our post-pandemic era, a ‘generation’ of students don’t have the same familiarity with libraries as they did in previous generations. Did these students miss out on using their high school libraries when they were completing high school largely from home? Did social interactions change post-pandemic? Do students prefer online reference questions and consultations, rather than in-person? And is this affecting the number of questions we’d normally get?

While this is a problem, there’s also opportunity; opportunity to devote more time to seeking in-class instruction—where you seek students out and not vice-versa; opportunity to work on offering enhanced library services; opportunity to plan library events; and more.

I’ve thought about how to address shrinking reference questions. If you assess the number and type of reference questions you’re getting, and it’s different from before—such as fewer or simpler questions—in broad strokes you can approach the issue from a couple perspectives:

  • You can make decisions reactively (e.g. less library staff at the front desk, shorter library or front desk hours), or
  • You can make decisions proactively (e.g. broad, university-wide promotion strategies to inform students what library staff can do for them, reinforce there are no stupid questions and it’s worth getting help from library staff).

Whichever approach you take, you need to think about your goal: are you reacting to fewer reference questions to maintain the status quo or are you proactively trying strategies to ensure students are getting the help they need, and meeting them where you are?

I always think that if we build it, they will come. But maybe we have to tell them what we’ve built. And one thing’s for sure: we must think hard about what to build.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.