User satisfaction

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Although for more than three decades researchers have examined the interaction that occurs between the librarian and the library user in the reference transaction, the literature devoted to the evaluation of the reference transaction is both incomplete and inadequate (Durrance, 1986). While the importance of measuring reference service quality is well established, researchers have been unable to reach a consensus on how to evaluate and operationalize such knowledge (Richardson, 2002).


The definition of user satisfaction merits specific attention because of its attempt to measure quality. Traditional definitions of quality as reflected in the size and diversity of a library's holdings have begun to lose their impact over time as the sole measures of a library’s services. Those factors are still important but they must now be seen within a broader focus that also includes the users’ perception of quality (Hernon & McClure, 1990).




There is no singular definition of user satisfaction though it is distinguished as one of three frequently cited performance outcomes of quality reference service—the other two being utility and accuracy (Richardson, 2002). One framework for defining user satisfaction in evaluation of quality for library service is the definition proposed by Applegate (1997). Applegate distinguishes between affective and nonaffective behaviors. Her primary argument is that "satisfaction is best understood as a personal, emotional reaction to a library service or product" (Applegate, 1997, 200).


Richardson's basic premise is that user satisfaction is produced in the interaction between a customer and the librarian. "User satisfaction pertains to the process of the transfer. The user must be satisfied that the librarian has provided good service and exhausted all necessary avenues to find an answer to the query" (Richardson, 2002, 2). He further differentiates between the quality associated with the process of service delivery (user satisfaction) and the quality associated with the outcome of the service (utility). Implicit in this definition is the notion that service quality involves more than outcome; it also includes the manner in which the service is delivered.


A Marketing Concept of User Satisfaction


User satisfaction and service quality have long been associated terms:


By inference, satisfaction levels from a number of transactions or encounters that an individual experiences with a particular organization fuse           to form an impression of service quality for that person. The collective experiences of many persons create an organization’s reputation for           service quality (Hernon & Altman, 1998, 8).



Several instruments have been developed that use user satisfaction as a measurement to assess service quality. One such approach to evaluating service quality involves an instrument, SERVQUAL, derived from the marketing service perspective. SERVQUAL's applicability to libraries continues to be explored; SERVQUAL assesses both user perceptions and expectations of quality service and permits service managers to view the gaps between the two; thus, the overall areas of improvement in library services can be determined (Parasuraman, Berry, & Zeithaml, 1988). By contrast, the reference service performance model argues that performance-only is sufficient as an explanation for satisfaction (Applegate, 1997).




Library research has traditionally found significant discrepancies between users being satisfied with a reference encounter and the accuracy with which users’ questions are answered (Applegate, 1997, Richardson, 2002). Frequently cited, Hernon and McClure’s 55% rule is the classic attempt to describe accuracy.


But in a recent article on a reference evaluation study that he conducted with Matthew Saxton, Richardson suggests that librarians provide an accurate source or strategy in response to users' questions approximately 90% of the time. In addition to measuring to what extent accurate answers were provided, Richardson and Saxton also investigated what behaviors the librarians exhibited as they attempted to answer questions (Richardson, 2002).


Richardson reports that the results of the study show that factors that contribute to improved user satisfaction are the behavioral guidelines outlined in the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) "Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers" (Richardson, 2002).


Other Considerations


There is some evidence in the library literature of a connection between user satisfaction and the user's willingness to return (Durrance, 1986). Joan Durrance, interviewing users of three academic libraries as they left the reference desk during the morning, afternoon, evening, and weekend hours, found that only ten percent of all users look for particular staff. She attributed this research finding to librarianship's inability to "produce a set of conditions conducive to the development of a true client-professional relationship" (Durrance, 1986).


Jo Bell Whitlatch used a scale for satisfaction that had three performance measures and one for satisfaction. Richardson considers Whitlatch's study "the most sophisticated study of user satisfaction with reference service that has been performed" to date (Richardson, 2002). "The findings indicate that a strong service orientation on the part of librarians and direct "feedback" from readers during the reference transaction contributed to higher levels of reference performance," concludes Richardson (2002).




Applegate, R. (1997). In Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science (Vol. 60, pp.199-227). New York: Marcel Dekker.


Durrance, J. (1986). The Influence of Reference Practices on the Client-Librarian Relationship. College & Research Libraries, 47, 57-67.


Hernon, P., & Altman, E. (1998). Assessing Service Quality: Satisfying the Expectations of Library Customers. Chicago: American Library Association.


Hernon, P., & McClure, C.R. (1990). Evaluation and Library Decision Making. Norwood: Ablex Publishing Corporation.


Parasuraman, A., Berry, L.L., & Zeithaml, V.A. (1985). A Conceptual Model of Service Quality and its Implication for Future Research. Journal of Marketing, 49, 41-50.


Richardson, J.V., Jr. (2002). Reference is Better than we Thought. Library Journal, 127(7), 41-42.


Richardson, J.V., Jr. (2002). Understanding Reference Transactions: Transforming an Art into a Science. San Diego: Academic Press.



Janine Liebert