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Reference Study

Hamilton Public Library (Canada)

Problem Statement

Reference use is changing. We had conducted several self-reporting in-house studies that attempted to measure these changes. We felt that there was an inconsistency in the application of the definitions and that it was difficult for staff to conduct a proper survey while working. At one time, it was clear that there was a significant gap in public expectations of reference staff at branches and at Central. As a result, Central staff still tended to have a higher level of education and training.


We worked with two respected, recently retired Reference managers from other systems and, together with them, put together a shadowing program and process in which all reference questions at Central desks and at several branches were captured and evaluated. The methodology allowed us to ensure that consistent definitions were being used at all locations and at all desks.


We established, beyond debate, that there is no longer any difference between the types of questions being asked at branches or at Central. We established that the number of in-depth reference questions has declined and that the vast majority of all questions did not require the level of education and training being demanded of Central reference staff.

As a result, we are re-deploying more of our professional librarian staff to branches and changing their job expectations, providing them with more branch supervisory responsibilities and more “professional” experience. We are also closing one Central Library reference point and using the staff that have become available to fill branch staffing needs that are reflective of increased use in some locations.