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Mirriam-Webster's Online Dictionary defines "accuracy" as "freedom from mistake or error: correctness." As it relates to reference librarianship, accuracy can be conceptualized to refer to the number of reference questions that a librarian answers correctly (Hernon & McClure, 1986; Durrance, 1989).


The 55 Percent Rule

The "55 percent reference rule" refers to the understanding that librarians correctly answer approximately 50-60% of factual and bibliographic questions asked of them (Hernon & McClure, 1986). In a study investigating the nature of this apparent low rate of accuracy, Hernon and McClure found that incorrect answers were most likely due to reference librarians providing incorrect data. The second most frequent scenario was termination of the reference transaction by librarians who stated that they did not know the answer to the question. Finally, Hernon and McClure found that in the rest of the cases that they examined, librarians stated that they did not know, and that the source of information that would provide the answer to the query was not available at that particular location when it in fact was. In reviewing these findings, Hernon and McClure are critical of the low accuracy rate of reference services and proposed a reevaluation of those services within the context of the library and its professional mission to provide accurate information to its users.


Accuracy and the Reference Librarian

A study conducted by Durrance (1989) revealed that the provision of accurate information was pivotal in determining whether an inquirer was likely to return to the same librarian to ask another reference question: those who were provided with totally inaccurate answers were 96% unlikely to return to that librarian, and those who were provided with accurate answers were indeed likely to return to that librarian for further assistance. However, she concluded that accuracy is one of a host of factors that work together to determine whether the inquirer perceives the reference interview to be successful. Among these factors include the reference environment (such as position and location of the reference desk, identifying signage), perceived friendliness and approachability, the librarian's appearance, and evidence of professional skill.


Improving Accuracy

Kemp and Dillon (1989), along with other researchers such as Hernon and McClure (1986) advocate collaboration with other members of the library staff, as well as thinking of the library in its entirety, in order to improve reference accuracy. Kemp and Dillon (1989) localized problems that may hinder reference accuracy and delineated a list of measures that librarians can take to improve accuracy. The following is a sample of their recommendations:


  • For problems stemming from the reference interview, such as incorrect interpretation of the inquirer's query, Kemp and Dillon recommend that librarians learn to employ active listening techniques, and return to the inquirer with additional information if the initial reference interview was not successful or satisfactory.


  • For problems stemming from inadequate knowledge of sources, consulting fellow staff members and local information sources was recommended, as well as initiative on the part of the librarian on researching possible topics that students are likely to need assistance in researching.



Durrance, J. (1989). Reference success: Does the 55 percent rule tell the whole story? Library Journal, 114(7), 31-36.


Hernon, P., & McClure, C. (1986). Unobtrusive reference testing: The 55 percent rule. Library Quarterly, 111(7), 37-41.


Kemp, J., & Dillon, D. (1989). Collaboration and the accuracy imperative: improving reference service now. RQ, 29(1), 62-71.


Mirriam-Webster Online. (n.d.). Retrieved November 18, 2006, from


Andrew J. Lau