by Zana Etter
MC Journal: The Journal of Academic Media Librarianship, v.1 no.2, Fall 1993:66-69.


The Media Library houses a small specialized collection to support the basic sciences curriculum of the medical school. In addition to approximately 700 texts and reference books, the library maintains lecture notes and sample exams, reserve readings, and audiotapes of all lectures for a one year period.

The bulk of our collection consists of approximately thirteen hundred audiovisual programs used for student self-instruction and faculty presentations. The library circulates roughly 3,000 items per month to students and faculty when school is in session.

We received a total of 197 reference questions between June 1989 and December 1990, an average of 11 questions per month. Most requests were received over the phone (161, or 81.7%) as compared with 36 in-person requests (18.3%).


A Reference Log, kept by the telephone, was used to record reference requests made both in person and by telephone. The form was divided into four sections: Client, Request, Phone/In-Person check off area, and Outcome. The Request and Outcome sections were large enough for several sentences or brief remarks.

Questions relating to the collection or the library in general and questions concerning bibliographic databases or other related library systems all were recorded. Casual questions about hours, borrowing policies, and directional inquiries were not included. The actual questions recorded on the forms were later analyzed and characterized by type.


Queries were reviewed and put into three major categories, depending on the subject of the request: audiovisual related, computer related, and books/journals. A fourth category was created for questions of a general nature that did not fit into

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the other three areas. This "informational" question category included questions requiring information about other library services/collections, programs, contact persons, addresses, etc.

Predictably, the majority of requests centered around audiovisual related material or equipment. Ninety-four questions (47.7%) concerned needs for borrowing AV items, knowledge of our collection or a particular AV product, or questions regarding equipment.

Thirty-seven informational questions (18.8% of total) were the next largest category. These could not be grouped into an additional distinct category since they were so varied. Thirty- five queries about books and journals represented 17.8% of the total reference queries. Our book collection consists primarily of required texts for courses and we house no journals. The requests for journal articles, popular books on medical topics, and clinical monographs outside the scope of basic sciences indicates some misunderstanding about the breadth and content of our collection.

The smallest number of reference requests (31) dealt with computer related topics, such as information about computer assisted instruction programs for courses, MEDLINE availability, training requests, or questions concerning computer hardware and software. We were surprised that this category of queries was not larger (only 15.7% of reference questions asked), since computer and on-line search activity has steadily increased due to the introduction of integrated search systems and requirements for student use of computer programs.


The last area of inquiry dealt with the outcome or resolution of the reference "interview." These were divided into two subcategories: successful and unsuccessful.

If a client borrowed or used material in the collection, or was provided with information to help answer the question, we considered it a successful, positive outcome. If questions regarding areas in which we did not collect were answered with a referral, we counted those as successful outcomes.

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On the other hand, if there was nothing available in the collection to satisfy the client's needs in areas in which we collect, if the material we suggested was inappropriate, or if we could not answer the question, we deemed this an unsuccessful resolution of the problem.

We were able to provide answers for over three quarters of the queries (166 out of 197 for a 84.3% success rate). This outcome differs from the norm; other research has found that failure to provide an answer is common. (Douglas 1988)

Often, the requests we could not fill were those asking for items outside the scope of our collection. Specifically, these are requests relating to journals, to materials for patients or lay public, for more elementary level materials, and for audiovisual items in areas in which we do not collect. We were unable to provide satisfactory answers for only 31 queries (15.7% of the total). Success rates in providing correct answers range from about 40 to 80 percent, and the average is between 50 and 60 percent. (Roose 1989) According to these data, our success rate was above average.

We were gratified to know that we were making efforts to refer people to another source when we could not provide them with materials or answers. By counting the number of times we suggested performance in handling reference requests. The analysis also showed that in many instances we provided more than one referral, in case the first one we suggested did not produce results. Recent studies indicate that "by monitoring referrals and adjusting policies appropriately it may be possible to improve the quality of service considerably."(Douglas 1988,98) Any study of reference outcomes that does not include referrals should be questioned.

We need to improve our performance, however, by becoming more knowledgeable about other audiovisual collections and, if possible, by expanding our collection to include some items we now lack.

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By categorizing reference requests we learned about the needs of our users, our performance in fulfilling those needs, and the collection we maintain.

Not surprisingly, audiovisual requests headed the list of reference queries, since we are primarily a Media Center and would attract those types of questions. Computer related inquiries will probably increase in time as more systems are added and teaching emphasis moves away from print products toward computer programs. Requests for popular books and journal articles should diminish when users understand the composition of the collection.

We obviously can only build the audiovisual collection in subjects covered in the initial years of the curriculum, nor can we purchase items for the lay public since our purpose is to serve medical students, faculty, and health professionals exclusively. However, after listing specific topics gleaned from the requests, we can identify weak areas of our collection. When funding becomes available we plan to purchase materials for those subjects. We believe that while continuing to monitor questions in hope of uncovering deficiencies, service can be improved by acquiring the necessary reference tools to satisfy client need. (Douglas 1988, 99)

By collecting and analyzing reference requests, librarians can become aware of misconceptions about collections and policies, educate users, and decrease unnecessary reference queries. Improved productivity and enhanced communication between staff and users should lead to better public relations and overall satisfaction with library services.