Communication overload: A phenomenological inquiry into academic reference librarianship

C. Sean Burns, Jenny Bossaller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


This study aims to provide insight on the meaning of communication overload as experienced by modern academic librarians. Communication is the essence of reference librarianship, and a practically endless array of synchronous and asynchronous communication tools (ICTs) are available to facilitate communication. This study relied on a phenomenological methodology, which included nine in-depth interviews with academic librarians. The interviews were transcribed and analyzed using RQDA, a qualitative analysis software package that facilitates coding, category building, and project management. Seven themes about librarianship emerged from this research: attending to communication abundance, librarians of two types, instruction not reference, twenty-first century librarianship, user needs, trusted methods: filter not retrieve, and self-impact. The shared meaning of communication overload among these librarians is that it is a problem when it detracts from or hinders their ability to assist their users. Further research should contribute to an understanding of communication as a problem when it interferes with serving the librarians' users, or to an understanding of interpersonal communication within the librarians' organizational structures and in their broader professional networks. Research in popular psychology has focused on the negative impacts on productivity and concentration of living in an always-plugged-in environment. This research confirms that librarians should have time to work away from digital distractions to maintain job satisfaction. Important work by Radford and Dervin has focused on communication with users. This study focuses on the impact of ICTs on librarians' work and personal lives.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)597-617
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Documentation
Issue number5
StatePublished - Aug 31 2012


  • Academic libraries
  • Communication
  • Communication technologies
  • Information technology
  • Knowledge workers
  • Librarians
  • Phenomenology
  • Reference services

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Information Systems
  • Library and Information Sciences


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