Table of Contents:


Carroll Botts
Rebecca Bauerschmidt
LI813XM, Summer 1999

This study addresses electronic mail (E-mail), reference service provided by academic libraries. E-mail reference service refers to traditional library reference service conducted through the medium of electronic mail messages exchanged between patron and librarian. Since E-mail reference service is a relatively recent development, occurring, for the most part, within the last five years, the authors felt that a review of the professional literature should be supplemented by a survey administered to reference librarians at libraries which offer E-mail reference service. The authors believed that professionals working in the field could provide valid and timely insights into the issues associated with this service. Both the literature and our survey reveal that E-mail reference service is a phenomenon that is not only here to stay in the academic library, but will play an increasing role in library reference services. Further, more resources will have to be allocated to assure successful continuation of E-mail reference services.

E-mail reference service is currently used by a variety of patrons. They include faculty and students on campus, faculty and students who are not currently working in residence, and members of the local and global communities. All would seem to use this service for its convenience; patrons are as close to the reference desk as they are to their personal keyboards. Questions may be submitted at any time of day or night, whenever an information need occurs; certainly this aspect is significant considering the potentially global scope of the medium.

A comparison of E-mail and conventional (in person or by telephone), reference services reveals both differences and similarities. Both services require visible contact points, a link on the library web site or a reference desk (Lagace & McClennen, 1998). In either situation, patrons must state their information need in the form of a question, or series of questions. In general, E-mail reference queries tend to state information needs more clearly because the time required to write them encourages a better formulation of ideas (Bushallow-Wilbur, DeVinney, & Whitcomb, 1996). The communication which constitutes the question negotiation process can occur in both E-mail and conventional reference service. In the conventional reference interview the librarian may ask one or more neutral questions and rely on the patron's verbal and non-verbal clues to facilitate question negotiation (Dervin & Dewdney, 1986, and Taylor, 1968). This type of diagnosis of information needs is an interactive, holistic process during which the librarian's intuition may be involved (Grover & Carabell, 1995). E-mail reference librarians must, however, rely upon follow-up questions and answers which contain very little, if any, of the non-verbal communication which can be such an essential part of conventional service (Bushallow-Wilbur, DeVinney, & Whitcomb, 1996). In the conventional reference interview, at the point at which the librarian arrives at a prescription and treatment for the patron's information needs, the librarian may again have the advantage of verbal and non-verbal patron clues to evaluate the effectiveness of their service. With E-mail reference service, the patron may be satisfied with the librarian's response, or may counter that response with another E-mail message. Unless patrons provide evaluative feedback in the form of another message, the E-mail reference librarian has to rely solely upon personal judgement to evaluate effectiveness of service. While it is common practice for libraries to have guidelines governing conventional reference services, most libraries have few, if any guidelines for administering E-mail reference service (Sloan, 1998).

In order to collect information about E-mail reference service beyond what is available in the literature, the authors determined that a survey of professionals in the field would provide meaningful insights into the topic. The surveys were sent, via E-mail, to the personal accounts of heads of library reference departments at 21 randomly-selected colleges and universities in the western United States (see Appendix 1). Of the 21 librarians polled, 12 responded to the survey. The survey consists of eight short questions requesting statistical information, evaluation of service, and the librarian's thoughts on the future of the service (see Appendix 2). The results of our survey reveal many similarities among academic libraries. Of the respondents, 92% report regular use of their E-mail reference service. Most of the libraries responding report having provided this service for the last three to five years. An average of 33 E-mail reference questions are received each month, with an average of 0.49 hours spent on each question (see Appendix 3). Brigham Young University and Emporia State University report considerably longer average periods of time spent on each question (1.5 and 1.2 hours per question, respectively). Disregarding those two universities, the average time spent on each question is approximately 0.3 hours, or eighteen minutes. In 90% of responding libraries, the E-mail reference account is monitored by members of the reference staff; this may be one assigned person or various reference staff members. 73% of the libraries surveyed provide E-mail reference service to all who request it. Others provide that service to members of their university community only. 91% of our respondents report that patron needs are being met, and 54% say they have received positive feedback from their patrons. An overwhelming issue reported by 91% of our librarians is that usage of E-mail reference service is expected to increase in the future. Related to this, 82% report that more staffing will be needed to accommodate this increase.

A number of conclusions can be drawn from the professional literature and the results of our survey. E-mail reference service supplements conventional (in person and telephone), reference service in most academic libraries today. The service is especially useful to remote patrons and is becoming an integral part of distance education. For a variety of reasons, the use of E-mail reference service will increase in the future. The current trend toward distance education will contribute to this increase. As academic libraries go to web-based catalogs, E-mail reference service points of access become more visible and usage will increase. With expanding usage, libraries will need to allocate more resources for staffing E-mail reference service. Currently, the overwhelming majority of academic libraries do not have guidelines in place for their E-mail reference services; as usage increases, specific guidelines will need to be put in place to insure effective service.


List of Libraries Contacted and Report on Responses

Name of School SurveyedResponse
Arizona State UniversityYes
Brigham Young UniversityYes
California State University NorthridgeYes
Eastern New Mexico UniversityNo
Emory UniversityNo
Emporia State UniversityYes
Fort Lewis CollegeNo
New Mexico State UniversityNo
New Mexico TechYes
St. John's College Santa FeYes
University of ArizonaYes
University of California Los AngelesNo
UNM Business LibraryYes
UNM Education & Humanities LibraryYes
UNM Fine Arts LibraryYes
UNM Science & Engineering LibraryYes
University of Nevada Las VegasNo
University of Texas AustinNo
University of Texas El PasoYes
University of WyomingNo
Utah State UniversityNo
Schools surveyed total:21Yes: 12 (57%)


Survey questions sent via E-mail:

  1. How long has your library had electronic reference service?
  2. Approximately how many electronic reference questions does your library receive each month?
  3. Approximately how much time does your library spend each month providing electronic reference service?
  4. Who at your library provides electronic reference service?
  5. To whom does your library extend electronic reference service?
  6. Do you feel this service is meeting the needs of those patrons who use it?
  7. What do you see as the future of electronic reference service in your library?
  8. Please include any comments you would like to add.


Hours spent on each E-mail Reference Question
Name of School SurveyedHours/E-mail Ref. Question
Arizona State University0.27
Brigham Young University1.20
California State University Northridge0.21
Emporia State University1.50
New Mexico Tech0.33
University of Arizona0.80
UNM Business Library0.25
UNM Education & Humanities/ZIM Library0.30
UNM Fine Arts Library0.27
UNM Science & Engineering Library0.03
University of Texas El Paso0.24
Average hours per E-Mail reference question0.49


Abels, E.G. (1996). The E-mail Reference Interview. RQ, 35 (3): 345-358.

Bushallow-Wilbur, L., DeVinney, G., & Whitcomb, F. (1996). Electronic Mail Reference Service: A Study. RQ, 35 (3): 359-371

Dervin, D., & Dewdney, P. (1986). Neutral Questioning: A New Approach to the Reference Interview. RQ, 25 (4): 506-513.

Grover, R., & Carabell J. (1995). Toward Better Information Service: Diagnosing Information Needs. Special Libraries, Winter: 1-10.

Lagace, N., & McClennen, M. (1998). Managing an Internet-Based Distributed Reference Service. Computers in Libraries, 18 (2): 24-28.

Sloan, B.G. (1998). Electronic Reference Service: Some Suggested Guidelines. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 38 (1): 77-81.

Taylor, R.S. (1968). Question-Negotiation and Information Seeking in Libraries. College & Research Libraries, May: 178-194.