10 Pages

Qualitative Evaluation of Reference Service

ByDavid Shavit

Recent years have seen a significant change in the methodologies used to study social phenomena, a change that has been called "welcome," "bewildering," and "profound" at the same time. While quantitative methods continue to play an important role, there has been an enormous increase in the use of, and reliance on qualitative methods. Researchers have come to accept the fact that no one method can answer all questions. Fieldwork and qualitative methods were in common use in the past in disciplines such as anthropology and sociology. Today, these methods have spread into, and become acceptable by, other disciplines, including education, adult education, mass communication, police and criminal justice, among others.' Qualitative methods also became an important tool in the evaluation of public policies and programs, and particularly their impacts and outcomes. 2

Van Maanen sees several sources for the disenchantment with the results of quantitative studies, among which are the relatively trivial amounts of explained variance, and the high level of technical sophistication which makes quantitative research incomprehensible to all but the highly trained few. 3

Library service has lagged behind. Librarians have been measuring and evaluating inputs and outputs, but have been reluctant to measure and evaluate outcomes and impacts. Various reasons have been set forth for not conducting evaluations of library service outcomes, including reference service. In his comprehensive study of measurement and evaluation of library service, Lancaster states that

A few studies of library service have used qualitative methods but, unfortunately, they are not all readily available. The following are some useful examples: Robert Taylor conducted open-ended and unstructured interviews with special librarians and information specialists to open up new ways of looking at libraries and to "allow reference and searching process to be seen from a point closer to actual fact."8 Murfin observed reference service at a university library for a period of 45 hours and then asked the librarians for their assessment of their success in answering the questions and readers as to whether their needs were satisfied or not. 9 Perry Morrison has been a participant observer at Monash University Library in Clayton, Victoria, Australia for a period of nine months. \0 (Morrison conducted a literature search for the use of participant observation in libraries and turned up only one reference, although he suggests that this method could have been used without being called by that name).