Statistics keeping

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Statistic keeping or statistics keeping refers to the recording of reference transactions in libraries. Individual libraries have kept statistics of reference transactions since the early 20th century in order to determine patrons’ needs, reference department usage, staffing requirements, budgetary needs, and collection development. The statistics gathered are also used by administrators and governing bodies as a performance measure. The types of statistics compiled can vary from library to library, but there have been attempts by organizations at the state, national and international level to establish standardized methods of collecting statistics for the purpose of comparison, and to identify changes over time in patrons’ uses of reference services in the library.


Basic statistics keeping utilizes a tally system to record the number of reference questions asked. The terms reference, and reference transactions must be defined in order to determine what information is to be gathered. Librarians have repeatedly redefined these terms since the late 19th century so that the changing roles of librarians in meeting patrons’ requests for information would be reflected in the definitions. This began with Samuel Swett Green (1876), and continues to the present day.


Up until the 1960s, reference services were considered to be any combination of answering questions, locating materials for patrons in and outside the library, instruction in the use of catalogs and reference tools, preparation of indexes and bibliographies, and readers advisory (Shores, 1937; Rothstein, 1953/1989 and 1955/1989; Wheeler and Goldhor, 1962). The various definitions of reference service made attempts to compare similar institutions problematic.


At the national level, a U.S. Office of Education conference in 1946 (Schick, and the work of the American Library Association (ALA) throughout the 1950s and early 1960s (including a newly formed the Reference Services Division in 1962) led to the publication of Library Statistics: a Handbook of Concepts, Definitions and Technology (1966), a collaborative effort that sought to standardize concepts and definitions of a variety of library activities, including reference service. The handbook (1966) recommended that reference questions in university libraries should be “…measured in terms of number of contacts, time consumed per question, or number of questions handled” (p.24). According to the handbook, reference statistics for public libraries should categorize the number and type of inquiry with the level of difficulty, the sources used, a count of people entering the reference area and the number of patrons requiring assistance (p.47). The handbook also mentions reference statistics in school libraries and “special” libraries, but recommended that those institutions use a simple count of inquiries to indicate one aspect of the scope of service provided because librarians in those departments carried out other activities. The definition of reference service in the handbook was not as specific as the definition developed by the ALA Reference Services Division, but a standard was set for libraries to adopt.


After the ALA handbook was published, scholars and national organizations continued to refine definitions of reference service based on the work of the ALA’s Committee on Reference Standards and Statistics. They identified direct and indirect reference service components. Direct reference refers to personal assistance with instruction, information service and readers advisory. Indirect reference refers to the development of reference aids to improve access to in-house collections, and that can be shared with other libraries in order to increase the services of the library through cooperation (Shores, 1964; Rugh, 1975; ALA, 1975; Bunge, 1980). The introduction of the concept of ready reference, and new definitions of reference questions and research questions by B.M. Robinson in 1989 led to the incorporation of the time spent on research inquiries into the definition of reference transactions, though some libraries already used time as a statistic. Ready reference is an inquiry that can be answered in five minutes or less using a reference resource while the patron waits. Reference questions take anywhere from five to thirty minutes to answer, and require the use of more than one resource. Research questions can take up to a week to answer because multiple resources requiring analysis and an explanation of research findings are used. Notably, Robinson was the first to define referrals as that which takes place when a librarian is unable to answer a question.


Reference departments began developing internet-based services to increase accessibility for users in the 1990s. In response, new statistics to measure digital reference activities were created. These new statistics are a combination of traditional measures of reference services and new approaches designed for a digital environment. Digital reference transactions provide more statistical information, including the types of questions asked, the digital sources used by librarians, and the number of repeat users. Chat transcripts between librarian and patron can be analyzed for efficiency in terms of whether or not correct answers to inquiries are given, and through the time it takes to answer inquiries.




  • American Library Association (1966). Library Statistics: a Handbook of Concepts, Definitions and Technology. Chicago: American Library Association.



  • American Library Association. RASD Standards Committee. (1975 March). Categories of Reference Service. In Reference Guidelines. Chicago: American Library Association.


  • Bunge, C.A. (1980). Reference Services. In ALA World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services (486-474). [Reprinted in Reference Librarian, 66, 185-199.]


  • Green, S.S. (1876). Personal Relations Between Librarians and Readers. American Library Journal, 1, 74-81.


  • McClure, Charles R., Lankes, R. David, Gross, Melissa, & Choltco-Devlin, Beverly (2001). Statistics, Measures, and Quality Standards for Assessing Digital Reference Library Services: Guidelines and Procedures (Draft Version). URL:


  • Robinson, B.M. (1989). Reference Services: a Model of Question Handling. Reference Quarterly, 29(1), 48-61.


  • Rothstein, Samuel (1953). The Development of the Concept of Reference Service in American Libraries, 1850-1900. Library Quarterly 23(1), 1-15. [Reprinted in Reference Librarian, 25/26, 7-31 (1989).]


  • Rothstein, Samuel (1955). The Development of Reference Services Through Academic Traditions, Public Library Practice, and Special Librarianship. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries. [Reprinted in Reference Librarian, 25/26, 33-135 (1989).]



  • Shores, L. (1937). Basic Reference Books: an Introduction to the Evaluation, Study, and Use of Reference Materials with Special Emphasis on Some 200 Titles. Chicago: American Library Association.


  • Wheeler, J.L. & Goldhor, G. (1962). Practical Administration of Public Libraries. New York: Harper & Row.


  • Rugh, A.G. (1975). Toward a Science of Reference Work: Basic Concepts. Reference Quarterly, 14(4), 293-300.


  • Schick, Frank L. (1966). Foreword. Library Statistics: a Handbook of Concepts, Definitions and Technology v-vii.


Further Reading



James Fiala