Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The 55% Rule

Some years ago … I think in the mid-80s … the Maryland State Library sponsored an unobtrusive evaluation of reference services within that state. Teams of students approached the reference staffs at various public libraries with a number of selected questions.

Only 55% were answered correctly. That’s a bit more than one out of two.

The response in the library press was to suggest that reference staff members always follow up with the question, “Does this answer your question?” I think that’s pretty reasonable in nearly all cases, excepting of course that one must realize that the questioner, often enough, has no idea whether or not the answer provided is actually correct.

If he/she knew they most likely wouldn’t have needed to ask the question.

One might also think that, gee, some questions can be pretty difficult. 55% might not be all that bad.

However, if you read the original paper’s “test design” you find that all of the questions were what are called “ready reference” questions, ones that could have been answered from the short list of books almost every reference desk has close to hand. These are such things as encyclopedias, almanacs, thesauri, dictionaries, etc.

In other words, there was no research to do … just decoding the questions and reaching for the proper books. In my view, 95-plus% should have been answered correctly.

The answers were there. It was the reference staffs that were wanting.


  1. Actually, as someone who has taking the training from the folks who did the original study, the question is:

    Does this *completely* answer your question?

  2. Yes ... I hadn't quite remembered that.

    Asking *anything* as a follow-up is a useful thing to do. It extends the request, making it into a conversation and thus makes it easier to ask more probing questions.

    Still, these were all "ready reference" questions.