College & Research Libraries News

Telephone information service

By Edward A. Riedinger

School of Library and Information Studies University of California, Berkeley

The literature on telephone information or reference service has concentrated on this activity primarily as it is conducted in public library settings. Such research has been appearing for over half a century. However, telecommunication changes now occurring in academic libraries, from junior and community colleges to major research universities, will heighten the importance of telephone information service in them.

Online collection catalogs are now commonplace in libraries. What is emerging as another common practice is accessing these catalogs via a modem from a user’s personal computer. At any time of day (or night) and from virtually any location, a scholar can browse a university catalog and, having a printer, make a copy of the information found.

However, besides examining a collection catalog, the online user can now access other information in a library ’ s database, such as an encyclopedia, periodical literature guide, current news index, or other file. As a result, the online user can examine a considerable amount of extensive reference resources from an academic library (or libraries) in his or her home. With this information a user can phone the library’s information/reference desk (at an appropriate time of day) and confer on the material with a librarian. Consequently, the nature of the academic telephone reference inquiry is changing. It is assuming more of the characterisitcs of a traditonal face-to-face interview since both user and librarian have the same catalog and reference resources “at hand.” If a user has two phone lines, he or she could be looking at the same catalog screen as a librarian.

The resources available in online databases are becoming more extensive. For example, the online catalog of the nine-campus University of California system (MELVYL) incorporates the catalogs and databases of the Colorado Alliance of Research Libraries (CARL), which includes an articles index, an encyclopedia (the electronic equivalent to 20 volumes), and numerous other reference files.

Accessing these growing resources proves greatest among the academic community. This group is one of the largest segments in the general population most likely to have or use personal computers, modems, catalogs, and databases.

Academic libraries must begin to think, therefore, in terms of more extended and sophisticated use of telephone information and reference services. For the first time in the history of this service, emphasis is beginning to shift from public to academic libraries. Some of the literature on this service as conducted in public libraries can be conveniently adapted for college and university libraries.

There are already two books, recently published, that should prove quite helpful to this adaptation since they are as comprehensive as they are relevant. These works are A Librarians Guide to Telephone Reference Service (Hamden, Conn.: Library Professional Publications, 1986) by Rochelle Yates and Improving Telephone Information and Reference Service in Public Libraries (Hamden, Conn.: Library Professional Publications, 1987) by Rosemarie Riechel.

The former is especially helpful in terms of training, publicity and promotion, and evaluation for a telephone service. The latter is particularly useful in setting up the resources for such a service, including online facilities.

There are some key areas in which academic reference services can already begin to plan. One of these is user policy and how identification will be made of those who are allowed to use the telephone service. Online user access codes or I.D.’s may have to be developed. Policy concerning users will differ between private and public universities. Among the latter there will also be differences between community colleges and state institutions.

Regarding policy for the areas in which responses will be given to inquirers, no doubt guidelines concerning this issue will follow the library ’ s collection policy. This probably will have been formulated to follow the teaching and research fields of the college or university.

How long a phone inquiry is allowed to continue will also have to be determined. In addition, it will have to be decided the extent to which homework inquiries will be answered.

Physical space for the service is another key consideration. The fundamental requirement is efficient integration of all resources, librarian with reference resources, and printed resources with those that are online. It must always be remembered that physical space defines the telephone service in order to secure not only the materials necessary for its operation but to indicate that there is specially-trained personnel.

Preparation of staff for phone reference work must balance efficient with careful response. A salient characteristic of the new type of academic telephone reference work will be the fact that both user and librarian are referring to and consulting materials that neither is using in the presence of the other. Training, therefore, must emphasize not only active listening but also knowledge of a kind of “braille orientation.” The librarian will not “see” how an inquirer is using materials but will have to “feel” the sense that is being made of them (until videophone, of course). Instructions to the user regarding additional resources for clarifying or further pursuing a question will become more important.

Statistics regarding users should include the type of resources used and their importance in the response. This descriptive statistical attention is important because it is new resources that are determining the expanding and more complex character of telephone service. These statistics will, therefore, not only profile and verify the phenomenon but be the basis for identifying resources to be strengthened in future development of it.

Academic libraries at all levels are going to find telephone inquiries becoming more complex due to the density of reference content they include. Much of this density will be due to online references the user and librarian can access in common. We are currently in a fortuitious position to begin already planning for and thinking of the innovations necessary for this technological and historical change in academic library reference service.

Copyright © American Library Association

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