Reference Questions and Statistics

What is a reference transaction or question? 

Instructions for the Wisconsin Public Library Annual Report states that "Reference Transactions are information consultations in which library staff recommend, interpret, evaluate, and/or use information resources to help others meet particular information needs. 

A reference transaction includes information and referral service as well as unscheduled individual instruction and assistance in using information sources (including web sites and computer-assisted instruction). Count Readers Advisory questions as reference transactions. More information on Reference Transactions can be found here.

The Annual Report asks you to report only reference, not directional, transactions. 

  • Examples of Reference questions:

"Do you have the book Bleak House by Charles Dickens?"

"I'm looking for information on resumé writing."

"I have to write a report on worms for my science class." 

What is a directional transaction or question?

A directional question is an information contact that does NOT involve the knowledge, use, recommendation, interpretation, or instruction in the use of any information sources.

  • Examples of Directional questions:

"Where is the restroom?"

"What time do you close?"

"Do you offer storytimes for toddlers?" 

Why keep track of reference and directional transactions?

There are other good reasons for keeping reference statistics in addition to reporting them in your annual report:

  • Circulation is one of the most commonly used measures of public library use.  But there are many other good measures of what you do, and the number of reference transactions is one of these.  (Number of library visits, number of attendees at library offered programs, and number of uses of library computers are some others.)
  • Tracking reference questions can help you determine what level of staffing is needed at public service/reference desks at various times of the day.  The data can also help provide documentation for including additional staffing in a budget request.
  • The number of questions answered provides you with some information about how your library staff is spending their time. 


How can a library keep track of questions? 

For the purposes of the annual report, many libraries keep track of the number of reference questions for a typical week, and multiply that by 52 to get the number of reference questions answered in a year. 

Why not just give a "Rough Estimate" for the Number of Reference Transactions in my annual report? 

The annual report software gives you three options for "How collected" in a drop-down menu:  Actual Count, Survey Week, or Rough Estimate.  However, if a library reports a rough estimate, it will not be counted toward the state totals. 

It is helpful for libraries to be able to compare themselves to other libraries.  It is helpful to compare Wisconsin to other states.  Neither of these comparisons is accurate if not all libraries report all data. 

For more information, contact: