Friday, August 23, 2013

Comp I: Reference

Use service concepts, principles, and techniques to connect individuals or groups with accurate, relevant, and appropriate information.


One of our core values of librarianship is providing the highest level of service to every patron. In order to do this, information centers provide reference services to users, staffed with reference librarians. Reference service is the personal assistance that staff gives to the patrons, either in person, over the telephone, or online. Reference librarians are the bridge between users and all the information in a collection. Tyckoson (2008) points out that “It is reference service that links the user to the library in a very individual and personal way” (p. 127, as cited in Haycock).

In order to provide good service to the various needs and skill levels of the users, a reference librarian has to be able to adapt to every subject, search tool, and reference source. Although I did not take LIBR 210, I learned various skills and concepts related to reference work in LIBR 200, LIBR 285, and LIBR 244. For many patrons, the reference librarian is the only interaction they have with library staff. The good service the librarian provides can influence what a user thinks of the library as a whole. A study done by the Wisconsin-Ohio Reference Evaluation Program shows that even if reference librarians don’t find the exact answer for a patron, if the service is excellent, the patron will return to the information service anyway. Resources I have learned about in my classes (i.e., online databases, NoveList, bibliographies, specialized encyclopedias, etc.) are the tools that can help provide this good service to patrons.

To give reference librarians guidance in providing excellent service to users, the Reference & User Services Association (RUSA) division of the ALA created Guidelines for Behavioral Performance (2004). The major guidelines give a reference librarian instruction on how to properly conduct an interaction with a patron, also called a reference interview. These include:

  • Approachability. This means welcoming users, reducing barriers, and prominently displaying help, either in person or online.
  •  Interest. A reference librarian should give verbal and non-verbal cues to show interest in the patron’s question. This is more difficult to do with online or telephone reference service, so written and verbal cues are essential for a successful interaction.
  •  Listening/inquiring. The librarian has to use open-ended, closed-ended, and neutral questioning to discover the true nature of the patron’s inquiry. The open-ended questions help expand on the query, while closed-ended questions can help get specific details. This part of the reference interview requires skill, as people do not usually ask for exactly what they want. For example, a patron may ask, “Where are the cookbooks?” What the patron really wants is Julia Child’s beef bourguignon recipe. A reference librarian must carefully inquire to get to this specific information.
  • Searching. This includes discovering what the patron has already done to find the answer and constructing a search strategy.
  •  Follow-up. This can be the most important part of the reference interaction. A reference librarian should check back with the user to make sure the sources are adequate. If not, the librarian can determine the next steps to take.

Samuel Swett Green, the father of reference work, wrote a very influential article in 1876 called “Personal Relations between Librarians and Readers,” defining the four goals of reference services. This was when reference services were a fairly new concept in libraries, so this article defined the field for many in the LIS profession. Green’s four areas of reference work are instruction, question answering, reader’s advisory, and promotion of the library. The reference librarian uses all the tools at his or her disposal – books, periodicals, databases, the Internet, etc. – to perform these duties. Programs like NoveList can assist a librarian in recommending a book that matches the reader’s interest. Green said that “Persons who use a popular library for purposes of investigation generally need a great deal of assistance” (p. 74). This remains true today: available information has moved online and increased, but it can still be difficult to find exactly what you are looking for.


Evidence 1 is from LIBR 200; it is a discussion post about librarian-patron privilege (200 Discussion Post Reference). Many professional/client relationships – doctor/patient or journalist/source – are legally protected from disclosure of confidential information, but currently reference librarian/patron relationships do not have that privilege. The questions that patrons bring to reference librarians can be just as important (to the patron) as a consultation with a lawyer or doctor. In this post, I argue that reference librarians and their patrons should enjoy the same privileges as these other professional relationships, but only if the ALA had the power to discipline members for violating the privileges (as the American Medical Association or American Bar Association does). The ALA provides a more supportive, advisory role to the members than other professional organizations. With this evidence, I show that I understand the importance of reference work and the relationship between a reference librarian and the patron.

Evidence 2 (called Drewieske_ReferenceSourceReview) is an assessment of a reference source, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Online, from LIBR 285. In this review, I explain the features of the OED Online, the advantages of the OED Online over the paper version, and the benefits and shortcomings of the resource. This online dictionary covers an extremely wide range of words, with etymologies spanning centuries and links to primary sources. It does not include information about how or why a particular word’s etymology changed. As I point out in this review, for example, the OED Online is an excellent resource to get a person started on the etymology of a word, but more in-depth research would require a look at scholarly journals. To be a successful reference librarian, I must know what resources are available and what would be appropriate resources to answer a patron’s question. I learned to evaluate the limits of a resource and which resources are appropriate for which questions. The OED Online evaluation proves I could provide a patron with relevant resources.

Evidence 3, from LIBR 244, is an online search assignment (244 Online Search Assignment 2). In this assignment, I had to use specific databases in Dialog to find articles for users. In this assignment, I include my pre-planning, search strategies, and the most relevant articles for each problem (with highlights to show how they relate to the problem). There were five such assignments throughout the semester, and with each one, I learned to make my searches quicker and more accurate. In Assignment 2, I used the Dialog ProSheets to study the specific rules of the databases before beginning. During the searches, I used special features such as subject headings, thesauri, event codes, product classes, and others to get accurate and relevant results. It is important for a reference librarian to know these special features available in the online databases, because the questions a patron asks may have to do with a subject the librarian has no knowledge of. For instance, in problem 4, I had to research articles about technology used for airline and airport security, a subject about which I know nothing. Using the thesaurus to find the correct search terms and the classifications to weed out the obviously unrelated articles helped me find relevant articles anyway; intimate knowledge of the industry is not required, just knowledge of how to use the correct tools. The problems I was asked to solve in this class were likely more business-related and exact than a typical reference interview at a public library, but this evidence shows I can use reference resources to give patrons relevant information to their questions.


Reference service can make or break a patron’s impression of a library. If the user receives excellent service – whether or not the question is fully answered – they will come back for more help. In many libraries, even if a librarian’s main duties are in another department, the librarian may need to regularly do reference work. Several job postings I have seen with titles like “Instructional Librarian” include working at least an hour a week at the reference desk. Therefore, even if it is not my primary career goal, reference may be one of the most important skills I have learned in this program.


Green, S. S. (1876, Oct.) Personal relations between librarians and readers. Library Journal(1), p. 74-81.

RUSA. (2004.) Guidelines for behavioral performance of reference and information services professionals. Retrieved from

Tyckoson, D. A. (2008). Reference service: The personal side of librarianship. In K. Haycock & B. E. Sheldon (Eds.), The Portable MLIS: Insights from the Experts (127-146). Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

No comments:

Post a Comment