Module 4: Accuracy and Currency

Be sure that the information you are giving out is correct and current (if pertinent).

Finding the Correct Answer

The information you find should fill the real information need and allow your patron to say ‘yes’ when you ask the follow-up question: “Does this completely answer your question?” However, the purpose of your search is not to find a quick answer to a question. The purpose is to find complete and accurate information.

Common Reference Problems

Some of the most common reference problems that prevent successful, accurate answers are:

  • Telling the patron the information is not available when it is, either in your branch or through a referral.
  • Reading information incorrectly; for example, reading the wrong line of a table or transposing numbers
  • Not clearly understanding the patron’s question and answering the wrong question; for example, giving the patron information on the worst plane crash in the U.S. when the patron really wanted the worst crash worldwide.
  • Answering off the top of your head without verifying the information first
  • Providing outdated information
  • Making assumptions about what prior knowledge the patron may or may not have


Depending on the subject, outdated information may be wrong. For example:

  • Names of office holders
  • Addresses and phone numbers of businesses
  • Statistics
  • Scientific, medical or legal information
  • Preferred gender, racial or ethnic terminology

There are many other instances, of course, when older information is inaccurate. When should you suspect you have an outdated source?

  • Check the date of the material you are using. Do you suspect there is newer information to be had, even if you don’t have it? Sometimes there are clues in the material itself. You may have a third edition, dated 1995. Is there a newer edition?
  • Statistical tables should indicate on the table the date of the information given. Tables often give the name of the group or agency that compiled them. It’s worth checking to see if later figures are available.
  • Office holders change frequently. Directories are generally out of date before they are published.
  • Websites change rapidly — or not at all! Look for dates of content update, not just copyright dates, and verify that information is being updated. Choose the most reliable, authoritative sources available.

If you suspect newer information may be available:

  • Check with your patron to find out if newer material is needed.
  • If it is, offer to pursue the question, giving the patron a realistic idea of when you might have the updated materials.
  • If the patron can’t wait for the referral process or prefers to make a direct contact, offer a source where the patron can go directly to get updated information. For example, check the statistical table to find out who compiled the data, and use a directory to get a current phone number. Or, if a person is looking for the name of a current office holder, offer to supply the phone number of the government office. Better yet, call the office yourself to verify the information.

Accuracy in Virtual Reference

If you are consulting and/or “pushing” a website, do the following to insure accuracy:

  • Offer accurate responses: check facts and know (evaluate) sources.
  • Check spelling in written responses, and validate URLs.
  • Shorten long URLs to limit chances of user error. URL shorteners include, and
  • Select and cite only from authoritative resources (evaluation criteria for web resources: author, content, domain name, date of last revision, objectivity, authority, and accuracy).
  • Always cite sources of information completely, whether web page, reference book, database, or other
  • Use a consistent citation style institution-wide, if possible, but be aware that patrons may require a specific citation style (e.g., MLA, APA, Chicago) given their circumstances.
  • Add value to information either through analysis, description, keywords, pathways, or rewording

Major Point: To provide accurate information: verify the question; use accurate and current sources; and relay the information carefully.


Using the four reference books (or others you located) from the exercise on the Reference Sources page, do the following:

  1. In each of the sources, look up information on world population and on the population of Ohio. Be sure and check the index or table of contents of each source to locate all information that may pertain to population.
  2. Is the information the same in the different sources, i.e. does the content of the information conflict, not just the amount of information?
  3. Can you get all the information from just one of the sources if the patron wants to know about the issue of overpopulation of the world?
  4. Look at the publication date to determine how old the information is. Find out if there are newer editions available that might have more current information.
  5. What is the result for your patron if you use old information?
  6. What is the result for your patron if you use only one source of information and it is not the most complete source?