Communicating with library users is an essential part of the librarian's work. The main purposes are communicating library services and products to our users, providing requested information and assessing users' needs. In times of increasing numbers of information resources and decreasing funds, it is more important than ever to know library users' needs; actually, this is the prerequisite to providing good service.
When scientists approach librarians with requests, usually a short interview follows in order to understand exactly what our users are looking for. While this sort of communication often is carried out face-to-face in the library, personal interaction is increasingly being replaced by communication through electronic means. Email is an excellent medium for this purpose as it is quick, cheap, and available in most parts of the world; several messages can be sent back and forth within a short time if necessary, regardless of the geographical distance between the scientist and the librarian. Accordingly, 48% of the survey respondents stated that email is most frequently used to communicate with library users, although closely followed by face-to-face communication (42%). With regard to email interaction with users, a remarkable difference can be seen between groups of countries - while 57% of librarians from developed countries communicate most frequently by email with their users, this is only the case for 40% of librarians from developing countries.
Quite interestingly however, only 29% of the respondents of our survey regard email conversation with library users also as the most effective method of communicating, while the surprisingly large number of 60% consider personal face-to-face interactions most effective.
Many libraries provide web pages that contain those information resources (or links to them) which are sought frequently by astronomers. From personal communications, it has become obvious that scientists indeed appreciate these ready-for-use resources. Strangely, when asked about the most frequent method of communicating, librarians often are not aware how important this service is for their users. Apparently, ``communicating'' still is associated with exchanging questions and answers. In our survey, only under 5% of the respondents considered their web pages to be the most frequent or most effective way to communicate with the astronomers. On the other hand, a large portion of librarians stated that they visited another library's or the PAM web page daily or several times per week (28%) or a few times per month (44%); nobody chose the option ``never''. Even if we use web pages to fulfill our own information needs, we obviously do not conclude that scientists do the same.
The usefulness of web pages becomes more obvious with sophisticated
web-based reference services designed for ``live'' communications back and
forth, for instance the
Collaborative Digital Reference Service
loc.gov/rr/digiref/) and the Virtual Reference Desk (http://www.vrd.org/). Increasingly, these services are provided by groups of libraries, covering various geographical areas (at least within one country) as well as different time zones. Thus, service can be provided to users on a 24 hours per day / 7 days per week (``24/7'') basis. However, librarians are no longer the only group that answers questions over the internet. Numerous ``Ask-A'' services, some of them commercial rather than non-profit, have become available. It is important to make sure that information obtained from these services is ``usable, relevant, authoritative and verifiable'' (Kresh 2000). Astronomy is covered by all large university reference services; there are also some specialized ``Ask an Astronomer'' sites.
In addition to individual personal communication with users, there are also other means to assess user needs and provide service (see Cummins 1998). Within an organization, a library liaison can be asked to convey scientists' needs to the library. This approach has its limitations of course, as an individual may not be able to represent all groups of users. It can also be difficult to find volunteers to take on this additional workload, especially in smaller institutions. Depending on the size of the organization, a focus group, consisting of representatives from the various user groups may be a fairer and more balanced solution. Questionnaires and surveys can be distributed to get feedback from library users, but it is a tedious and time-consuming process which needs to be well-planned and can only be used occasionally. Answers to questionnaires also can sometimes be ambiguous and misleading so that their interpretation and evaluation must be done extremely carefully.
Whatever method is applied to assess user needs, it will lead to initiating or adjusting services which shall meet these needs. After some time, it is essential to evaluate the success (or failure) of the changes.
A more structured way to communicate with astronomers is the Working Group on Libraries of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), Commission 5 (Documentation and Astronomical Data). Through reports and presentations during the IAU General Assembly, librarians can inform scientists about ongoing projects and activities in astronomy libraries, as well as get feedback on existing services.