Digital Reference Services for Engineers

Definition of an Engineer
Types of Information Sources
Accessibility / Ease of Use
Technical Quality
Stages of Information Seeking
The Reference Interview
Digital Reference
References (pdf)
Appendix (pdf)

Accessibility / Ease of Use

The higher ranking of informal resources is due to them being considered more accessible, and therefore more valuable than the formal sources. Fidel and Green (2004) suggest accessibility and ease of use are two different forms of accessibility. They define accessibility as physical accessibility or the ease of physical access of an information source. Ease of use is defined as intellectual accessibility or the ease of understanding of an information source. In detailed interviews with 32 engineers they found that the three most important accessibility features influencing an engineer’s choice of an information source were: sources the engineer had previous experience with and knew well, sources that saved the engineer time, and sources that were physically close.


Experience is important because familiarity helps to minimize the mental effort required while searching for information (Fidel & Green, 2004). Engineers tend to act to minimize loss rather than maximize gain. Previous experience with an information source enables an engineer to minimize the cost in terms of the effort which must be expended to gain access to information (Gerstberger & Allen, 1968). This concept is referred to as the ‘principle of least effort’ (Zipf, 1949, p. 6).

Saving Time

Since most engineers work in a corporate environment on projects with strict deadlines, they are often pressured for time and are always looking to minimize the amount of time searching for information (Ward, 2001). The principle of least effort also applies here. Hertzum and Pejterson (2000) found that one of the reasons engineers would rather ask a question of a co-worker rather than a librarian is the time saved by not having to explain the context of the problem and the information need. Robinson (2010) also found that engineers consider it more efficient and less time consuming to use a human source. The efficient delivery of information is of vital importance. Too large a supply of information will simply slow the engineer down (Court, Ullman, & Culley, 1998). Case (2007) refers to this as information overload and suggests it can cause someone to give up on any information search. Robinson (2010) found that a key reason for information overload is an excess of passive information (non-requested information) rather than active information (requested information).

Physical Proximity

Holland and Powell (1995) found that some engineers believe that information is of no use to them if they have to go to a library to get it – another example of the principle of least effort at work.