Jesse Shera on assessment

As I have been reviewing some classics of librarianship, I came across this address by Jesse H. Shera to the Texas Library Association in the spring of 1966. The topic was reference service and it included this section on “The Evaluation of Service”:

Despite our lack of knowledge (I don’t want to say “ignorance” because we’re not really ignorant–but we certainly have enourmous gaps about what reference work really is psychologically), we have never developed any real standards for evaluation. Here, I think, is a job that is fundamental if we are going to talk about foundations or a theory of reference work. We must not only learn what reference work is and what it involves, but also how we measure its effectiveness. How do we know when reference service is good?

I suppose no reference librarian is ever really satisfied with what she is doing. She things “There must be some other place I should have looked or som other aspect I should have considered.” That’s sort of a vague and general evaluation. Mostly, we depend on reader satisfaction. If the reader went away happy, then we were happy. If he was unahppy, then, of course, that rubbed off on us and we worked some more until we finally made him happy or convinced him this was all we could get, all that was available, and that was the end of it. While it’s the best measure we have at hte present time, it’s a pretty shaky way to do our job. Because the reader thinks he is satisfied, everyone is happy–but should he be satisfied? He got what he thought he wanted, but did he really get what he needed?…

We have no real valid measurement of effectiveness and I must frankly admit I don’t know how we will develop it, but I think we must. This whole question is economic. Again, reference librarians are going to have to spend some time on it because they have a professional obligation, a duty to do so.

Recall that this was written over 40 years ago, just before the first real push for evaluation of outcomes. While I have been quite impressed with Shera’s ideals of bibliographic services (aka Liaison Librarians), I was still surprised to see this early spark of the idea of assessment.

Shera, Jesse H. 1966. “Foundations of a Theory of Reference Service.” In, Knowing books and men; Knowing computers too, by Jesse H. Shera. Littleton, CO:Libraries Unlimited, Inc. (1973).

Originally posted by Karen R. Harker on blog.


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