Bang for your buck

There is an interesting In Press article from the Journal of Academic Librarianship:

Reference Transactions Analysis: The Cost-Effectiveness of Staffing a Traditional Academic Reference Desk

From the abstract:
“This study categorizes 6959 reference desk transactions to determine how many of the queries require the attention of a librarian. Results indicate that 89% could likely be answered by non-librarians. From the results of this and other studies, the author explores the cost-effectiveness of staffing a traditional reference desk with librarians.”

The article presents a study and discusses previous research which details how search and information discovery technology has radically changed the traditional role of the reference librarian. The authours then provide data which call into question the cost-effectiveness of staffing academic reference desks with librarians given the types of questions that now predominate:

“Results of the current question analysis study also confirm that many questions can be considered simple directional or machine-related. As seen in Table 3, the 2528 non-informational direction and machine transactions accounted for 36.3% of all of the transactions during the eight-month study period. Few would argue that these “restroom” and “paper jam” transactions require the attention of a librarian.”

One of the highlights of the research presented:

“Dividing the amount by the 6959 transactions shows that the library spent an average of $7.09 per transaction. While that does not seem particularly expensive to answer the 784 “research” questions ($5559), consider that during the same time frame the library spent $7.09 on each of the 2528 times that a printer cartridge was changed, or a paper jam fixed, or directions were given to a building across campus.”

These cost estimates are below what they would likely be in a Canadian academic library. This study used an average librarian salary of $23.77, which is quite a bit lower than the librarians where I work (heck, even I make more than that).

The financial difficulties spiraling through the US economy are expected to hit Canada hard fairly soon. When increased pressure on library budgets start to set in,  I think it is inevitable that the trend of library technicians working extended shifts at the public reference desk will become more and more common.

While groups like this one, express concern over the de-professionalization of library work, the authours of the article don’t dwell on what some may see as the negative aspects of the changing trends at the reference desk, they point out where the role of the librarian should be moving:

“This may bolster the argument that librarians can leave answering most questions to others and can now concentrate on working on tasks that better utilize their training and experience, as well as learning new skills that benefit the library, the users, and the institution.”