The impact of COVID-19 on reference services: a national survey of academic health sciences librarians




Library Services, Reference, COVID-19, Pandemic, Academic Libraries


Objectives: The aim of this study was to gain a better understanding of the scope and adaptive nature of reference services provided by academic health sciences librarians over a one-year period (between March 2020 and March 2021) during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Methods: In March 2021, academic health sciences librarians in the United States were invited to participate in an anonymous online survey about their experiences providing reference services during the COVID-19 pandemic. The online survey was developed, pretested, and distributed to various listservs.

Results: A total of 205 academic health sciences librarians and other information professionals with health sciences liaison responsibilities in the US (N=205) responded to the online survey. The scope of reference services provided during the COVID-19 pandemic included email-based reference services (97%), virtual reference (89%), telephone (80%), text-based (33%), and in-person (31%). The most common types of COVID-related reference questions included COVID-19 treatments (53%), safety precautions (46%), vaccines (41%), and prevalence (38%). Additionally, the identification of challenging reference questions and examples of misinformation were provided by respondents.

Conclusions: The results of the survey characterize the evolving nature and scope of academic health sciences reference work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Librarians reported an increase in reference questions during the pandemic and are answering them in creative ways despite barriers (e.g., limited time and reduction in resources). There is an opportunity for librarians to continue to address COVID-related misinformation. Overall, these findings provide useful insight for library practitioners and administrators planning reference services during public health crises.


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Original Investigation