Reference Services and Information Access

views updated


The term "reference service" is defined simply as personal assistance provided to library users seeking information. Individuals who hold a master's degree in the field of library and information sciences or information studies typically provide the service. Reference librarians are variously referred to as "mediators between the user and the information" and "navigators of the information super-highway." Reference service traditionally has been offered in person at a designated desk within the library building, over the telephone, and through correspondence. More recently, libraries have expanded to offer reference service electronically via the World Wide Web, e-mail, and even twoway videoconferencing. Another form of reference service is classroom and one-on-one instruction in the use of print and electronic resources. Regardless of the delivery method, the value of reference service remains the same: to provide quality information through personalized service to library users at the time of need. Reference service is characterized by human interaction.

The Foundations of Modern Reference Service

The history of reference service is neither as long nor as illustrious as the history of libraries. Samuel Rothstein (1961) noted "May I remind you that in the United States of less than a century ago the library still took no responsibility whatsoever for the provision of personal assistance to its users." Samuel Swett Green, librarian at Worcester Public Library in Massachusetts, is credited with the "founding" of reference. In a paper read at a meeting of the American Library Association and published in Library Journal in 1876, Green provided numerous specific examples of questions that required the assistance of a librarian. He used the illustrations to "show that readers in popular libraries need a great deal of assistance." In this way, Green laid the foundation for reference service as it has been practiced ever since. His article noted that although catalogs and indexes are valuable, most users require instruction in their use. Users also must be guided in selecting the books that best meet their information needs. Green highlighted the importance of human interaction in the personal assistance process—librarians must be "easy to get at and pleasant to talk with" (i.e., approachable), and librarians must mingle freely with users and help them in every way. Green further emphasized that "certain mental qualities are requisite or desirable in library officers who mingle with readers. Prominent among these is a courteous disposition which will disclose itself in agreeable manners. Sympathy, cheerfulness, and patience are needful." He concluded that "a librarian should be as unwilling to allow an inquirer to leave the library with his question unanswered as a shop-keeper is to have a customer go out of his store without making a purchase." This was the beginning of user-centered service. Green based his views on his experience at the Worcester Library, where he observed that the reference room was seldom used. His implementation of the practice of providing personal assistance to library users resulted in an increase in the use of the reference room.

The idea of personal service to users caught on slowly, particularly in academic libraries where it was thought that it was the faculty's role to provide research guidance to the students. The debate raged for years regarding the value of such service. At the heart of the matter was economics—this was just one more service competing for funds. By 1893, a government report identified "personal assistance" as one of the five library primary practices; the other four practices were book selection, classification, cataloging, and planning the building.

The period between World War I and World War II evidenced the growth and specialization of reference services. Beyond face-to-face interaction within a building, questions were handled by telephone and correspondence. Larger libraries installed separate information desks to help users with basic directional and information needs, hired librarians with subject expertise, and established reader advisory services.

Textbooks for students in librarianship programs began to appear by 1902. In 1930, the American Library Association published James I. Wyer's Reference Work: A Textbook for Students of Library Work and Librarians. As Green did in 1876, Wyer focused on the humanistic aspects of reference work. He wrote, "[H]ere is a service which defies and transcends machinery. It still is, and always will be, imperative to provide human beings as intermediaries between the reader and the right book. The utmost use of great libraries never can be attained by mechanics." The words continue to be echoed in the writings of modern thinkers on the reference process. Buildings, Books, and Bytes: Libraries and Communities in the Digital Age (1996), a report prepared by the Benton Foundation, recommends a high touch, high technology role for librarians, and it encourages greater publicity for the librarian as information navigator with the human touch.

Philosophies of Reference Service

The goal of the reference librarian is to meet the individual need of the user to the fullest extent possible. How and to what extent this is done varies from library to library and depends on the type of library. Academic libraries focus on teaching users how to find information, special libraries primarily find information and package it for their users, and public libraries practice some of both approaches. Special libraries (e.g., for governments, corporations, museums, and newspapers) developed after World War I and emphasized locating information over building and maintaining extensive collections. These were the first type of libraries to make use of online databases to identify appropriate resources. Limits of staffing, subject expertise, and resources prohibit most public and academic libraries from providing similar in-depth service.

In his textbook, Wyer (1930) identified three concepts of reference work. The conservative philosophy instructs users in how to find the information on their own. The liberal philosophy holds that the reference librarian should locate the information for the user and provide it in the form needed. The moderate philosophy recognizes that maximum assistance will be offered based on a combination of library staffing, resources, time factors, and user need. The latter approach balances the instructional function with the full-service mode. Debates on these issues raged in the 1960s and 1970s, but they have abated as reference librarians have determined that a balanced approach takes into account the needs of the user at a particular time.

The Reference Interview

At the center of the interaction between user and librarian is the reference interview, sometimes referred to as "question negotiation." The ability to draw from and work with the users to determine their precise information needs is an art and a science. Entire books have been written on the subject, and reference textbooks generally devote considerable space to this important facet of reference work. The reference interview is the process by which the librarian helps the user to state the information need—listening carefully to the user's responses, asking questions of clarification as necessary, and communicating clearly to move the discussion forward. Important features of the interview include the ability to be objective and nonjudgmental. The librarian must also be sensitive to nonverbal behaviors, as well as alert to signs of frustration that may indicate the need for a change in direction. Flexibility is critical, since what works with one user may not work at all with another. Too many questions from the librarian can lead to user self-doubt and withdrawal— and ultimately to failure in filling the information need. Wyer (1930) said that "there must be in evidence the reassuring psychology of a sympathetic manner, personally and more than casually intent upon and interested in the matter in hand." Wyer also stressed the importance of reading the user's mind: "The aim of library mind-reading, then, is to know how to give people what they do not know they want!"

The Practice of Reference

Reference service has traditionally been offered by librarians at a reference desk. Depending on the library, desks are generally staffed for many hours on all of the days on which the library is open. This structure, although considered by some administrators to be inefficient, has had the advantage of providing service to users at the time of need. In this face-to-face environment, the approachability of the reference librarian is of utmost importance. All of the knowledge in the world will be of little use if the librarian has an unwelcoming demeanor. The librarian's behavior toward the user sets the stage for the success of the interaction. Wyer devoted a chapter of his 1930 textbook to handling reference questions and "meeting the public." His simple list of appropriate behaviors is as applicable today as it was then: "Never appear annoyed or indifferent. Never look or seem too busy to be interrupted. Meet all comers more than half way. Meet the public as you would like to be met in a strange library. Never be patronizing or openly amused. Laugh with a person, but not at him. Never say 'Never heard of such a thing' in a way that might offend." Since the 1930s, many libraries have developed guidelines for service. The Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) of the American Library Association has been a leader in formulating standards for reference services. Two of their major documents are Guidelines for Information Services (2000) and Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Services Professionals (1996). The latter set of guidelines addresses approachability, interest, listening/inquiring, searching, and follow-up. In all interactions, the user should be made to feel a partner in the transaction.

Once the librarian and the user have agreed on the nature of the question, the librarian begins the search process. If the question is factual, such as biographical or geographical, the librarian will determine which source might provide the best answer in the quickest manner. That source may be printed or electronic, or it may entail a telephone call or e-mail to another librarian, library, or agency. If it is an open-ended inquiry, as are most questions by those people who are undertaking research on a subject, the librarian will work with the user on a search strategy, suggesting resources and instructing in their use. The librarian will often provide guidance to the user in deciding which books, articles, or Internet sources provide the most relevant information given the scope of the topic and the level of information that is required. Research questions generally involve far more instruction than factual questions.

The telephone was the first electronic device to be used in reference services. Librarians quickly adopted it for use in providing service, but they have always had mixed feelings about its place. Most libraries locate their telephone reference service at the reference desk, so the librarian must juggle the in-person inquiries with those coming via telephone. Libraries often have a policy that the on-site person receives assistance before the caller, so the telephone goes unanswered. A number of public libraries operate their telephone reference service separately from the desk, advertising it as an "answer line" or "quick reference." Callers who need research assistance are generally asked to come to the library. Librarian interaction with the telephone user is more challenging than in-person communication. Cues must be obtained from voice level and intonation. The librarian needs to determine quickly the information need, determine whether or not to put the caller on hold or call back, and decide when a call should be referred.

Reference by correspondence is another form of reference service, but it has never enjoyed the same popularity as on-site or telephone reference. Much of the correspondence that is received by libraries entails questions that are related to genealogy or special collections. Much of this mail correspondence has been replaced by e-mail inquiries. Most libraries provide e-mail reference service, with policies following those that were already established for telephone and correspondence service. Reference librarians have found the reference interview to be problematic in the e-mail environment, since the interaction is asynchronous and it may take several days to elicit all of the information that is needed to respond satisfactorily to the inquiry.

In many academic institutions, reference librarians offer consultation services by appointment. This provides yet another option to users who need more time with a librarian than is generally available at the reference desk. In addition, the librarian has an opportunity to prepare for the session in advance.

Technology has had a major effect on reference services. Although the growing number of printed indexes made it possible to identify journal articles in many subject areas, the user had to wade through each year's index separately and search by prescribed subject headings or by the name of the author. Card catalogs allowed searching by title, author, and subject, but again, the subject headings were prescribed and users often had to seek the assistance of a librarian to identify the correct heading. In the 1960s, online databases were available only in the science areas, and they were used primarily in corporate libraries. Their use in academic and public libraries did not become common until the 1970s, when selected staff was trained. By the 1980s, the increase in the number of requests for online searching and the growth in the number of databases required that most reference librarians receive training. The searching was not performed by the user, and often, a fee was charged. Librarians began to experiment with the notion of end-user searching, but that did not occur until databases became available on CDROM. By the late 1990s, many libraries moved from CD-ROM to providing databases through the Internet. These databases encompass several years of indexing and offer a variety of searching options. Many also include the full text of the article, making searching by keyword rather than prescribed subject heading a powerful tool. The conversion of card catalogs to online catalogs has enabled librarians and users to find books by keyword as well. Modern reference librarians provide a strong link between the highly technological information environment and the user, advising on search strategies that help the user to focus the topic better and evaluate the information even as the user is able to access library catalogs and databases from home, office, and school.

Readers' Advisory Services

Of the many aspects of human mediated information services, recommending books to library users has long been a function of library services, primarily in public libraries. In the 1920s, libraries in Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Portland (Oregon), and New York established what is known as readers' advisory services. Librarians interviewed readers to determine their interests, and the readers were also judged on their reading ability. Following the interview, a list of readings was prepared and mailed to the reader. Readers' advisory services expanded from 1936 to 1940. A number of articles written during this time exhibited a moralistic tone, assuming that reading recommendations would result in the improvement of readers. After 1949, the readers' advisory function declined, but it is enjoying a resurgence in the early 2000s. The focus is centered on the reader and emphasizes the personal relationship between librarian and reader. The service is less didactic, with librarians viewing themselves as the link between readers and their recreational reading interests. Forms of readers' advisory services are also offered in other venues, such as and Oprah Winfrey's book club. The former retains data about customers' reading interests to alert them to related books. Storing information about users' preferences jeopardizes their privacy, however, making it difficult for libraries to compete with commercial services.

User Education

User education, variously called "bibliographic instruction" or "library instruction," has in the past been the purview of academic libraries, but it has since been encompassed by public libraries. The service, which is generally a part of the reference librarians' responsibilities, is considered to be complementary to desk service.

Lizabeth A. Wilson (1995) identifies four periods in the development of user education services. The first, between 1850 to 1920, saw slow growth as the focus of librarians was on building collections, not on service. An early pioneer in user education was Azariah Root, who ran a program at Oberlin College between 1899 and 1927 in order to introduce students to library systems, resources, and the history of the printed word. Public and academic libraries experimented with instruction through lectures and at the reference desk. The second period identified by Wilson, between 1920 and the 1970s, laid the foundation for instructional services. Notable during this time was the Monteith College Library Experiment at Wayne State University, which provided discipline-specific library instruction as an integrated part of the university's curriculum. One of the most significant developments in the 1970s was the shift from tool-based to concept-based instruction, as librarians realized that students needed a systematic way to develop, use, and evaluate a search strategy. This was also a period during which librarians drew upon learning theories and explored and debated a number of instruction techniques. The third period identified by Wilson occurred in the 1980s, when instruction became an accepted part of public services in libraries. By the fourth period, the post-1980s period, instruction had established itself as a field with its own literature, organizations, theories, and history. Librarians who are involved in instruction regularly draw upon current learning theory and instructional techniques. The term "information literacy" is widely used to refer to the entire scope of user education. In 1988, the American Association of School Librarians developed Information Power, which outlines standards and guidelines for user education programs in school library media centers. The 1999 edition includes information literacy standards for student learning. In 2000, the Association of College and Research Libraries issued "Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education." Public libraries have increased their user education programs as well. Sessions are offered in those subject areas that are most heavily used by the public (e.g., genealogy and business resources) and in general areas (e.g., learning how to search the World Wide Web and evaluate the results). The teaching role of the reference librarian is very important, since it encourages users to use creativity in their searches and to evaluate the results from a critical perspective. User education can also serve to heighten user awareness of the library.

Models of Reference Service

Despite the advances wrought by technology, the structure and organization of reference service has changed little since its inception. Services continue to be tied to the physical desk, requiring that users come into the building for assistance. In 1992, a new model was proposed by Virginia Massey-Burzio of Brandeis University. She experimented with tiered reference service within the building, staffing a service desk with graduate students who were to refer complex questions to a librarian who was available in a consultation office. In 1993, Anne Lipow offered institutes devoted to "rethinking reference services," at which a number of speakers challenged reference librarians to examine whether or not their current structures best met the needs of users. Tiered models often failed, not because they were without merit or because they were inefficient, but because they were contrary to the deeply ingrained reference librarian value of providing quality service when users need it without barriers and because they required significant training of staff to ensure that inquiries were answered correctly.

Jerry Campbell, the then director of libraries at Duke University, outlined a new role for reference librarians in a controversial article published in the Reference Services Review in 1992. Campbell observed that reference service is essentially without a conceptual framework, lacks a clear mission statement, and is cost ineffective. He observed that the model of reference focused on a physical desk could not survive the information age. Campbell noted that users' expectations of service were changing and that the demand for rapid delivery of information in electronic form was growing. He challenged reference librarians to create a service that is "increasingly electronic and nonbuilding-centered." Although much of what he envisioned has occurred, the reference desk remains in the center of reference services.

In an article published in 2000, Chris Ferguson calls for the integration of reference and computing support services into a comprehensive information service for both on-site and remote users. The line between what is a pure technology question and what is an information question has blurred as they have become intertwined and interdependent. The concept of tiered service needs to be refined, making intermediate-level service available twenty-four hours a day. Ferguson emphasizes the need in this convergence to retain the values of equity of access, personal service, and services tailored to the individual in ways that are humane and scalable. He calls for reengineering libraries "in ways that bring librarians and technologists together within a common service environment" to meet users' needs in a more effective manner.

Reference Referral Centers and Networks

Some states and regional library networks offer tiered reference services, which allow reference librarians to refer questions to another level when they do not have the resources to respond to their users' needs. California is a good example of a state that has a strong referral system. Formal reference referral in California began in 1967, with the founding of the Bay Area Reference Center (BARC), which was funded by a Library Services and Construction Act grant to the San Francisco Public Library. Public libraries in the Bay Area could refer questions they were unable to answer to BARC, which drew on the collections of the San Francisco Public Library, as well as numerous sources beyond those walls. In 1969, the Southern California Answering Network (SCAN) was born, serving all of Southern California. By the mid-1970s, public libraries were organized into fifteen systems under the provisions of the California Library Services Act. As part of the act, each of the fifteen systems established a System Reference Center. Considered to be second-level reference, Centers were designed to work with the public libraries in their systems to ensure that the needs of users could be met regardless of physical location and to facilitate document delivery through the member libraries. The Centers provided training to local librarians, focusing on basic services and on those reference tools that are typically held in small public libraries. They became a primary conduit for questions to the third-level centers, BARC and SCAN. Although BARC and SCAN no longer exist, second-level reference service is still operating, and the involved reference centers collaborate in answering inquiries.

Many of the referral centers serve all types of libraries. They may be funded through state funds, through membership fees, or a combination of the two. The advantages of referral are many, with the strongest being the ability to answer even the most difficult questions received from users. Reference service at referral centers is characterized by creativity and the use of a wide range of resources and methods that are not generally employed in traditional reference settings. Personal contacts, organizations, associations, and businesses are often called on to provide answers that are not easily found in printed books or even on the Internet. Referral center librarians seldom work directly with users; they instead expect that the local librarian has done a thorough reference interview. Referral centers take advantage of the combined strengths of libraries and reference librarians. Resource sharing, collaboration, and cooperation among libraries of all types create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Fee-Based Reference Services

Users who have no time to devote to large research projects have the option of turning to a fee-based reference service. Although not widespread, some large public and academic libraries offer such a service. This is considered a value-added service that provides the research requested by the user, along with delivery of the cited documents. Users generally pay an hourly fee, in addition to charges for photocopying and mailing the resulting materials. The primary users of fee-based services are corporations and law firms that do not have their own libraries. They view information as a commodity and consider it worthwhile to pay for the service. Individuals often use fee-based services on a one-time basis for a special project, such as tracking down genealogy material, researching job opportunities, or seeking funding for college.

The Future of Reference Services

The advent of e-mail, the World Wide Web, and other new technologies has had a major effect on the provision of reference services. In the late 1990s, reports indicated that the number of in-person and telephone reference transactions had sharply decreased. The ability of many library users to access information via the web contributed to this decline, as did the growth of commercial services that offer to answer questions on almost any subject without charge. Many of these services do not employ librarians and rely solely on web resources to provide information. Questions are often taken at face value, with little or no follow-up communication with the inquirer to discover the real information need. Lacking the financial resources of commercial entities and working within the often bureaucratic structures of libraries, reference librarians nevertheless have moved rapidly and tirelessly to offer a variety of information service options to their users.

The combination of users connected to the Internet and a growing emphasis on distance learning places a demand on reference services to expand aggressively beyond the walls of the library. Although a number of Internet companies exist to provide answers to questions, they are not equipped to provide in-depth advice, access to sometimes costly databases that are restricted by licensing agreements, or assistance with complex search strategies. Reference librarians can play a unique role in this area, developing methods with online technologies to assist users with difficult questions, to offer guidance on research strategies, to instruct users in evaluation techniques, and to provide services customized to the users' needs. Digital reference removes the barriers of time and place, and it masks the internal operations of the library to which users are exposed in an on-site visit.

Reference librarians in the early 2000s are experimenting with a variety of new technologies designed to respond to user inquiries. Reference via e-mail has been practiced since the early 1990s and has expanded to include web forms that guide the user through the inquiry. Software that enables the librarian to work collaboratively with the user and to guide the web browser in providing searching assistance is being applied in some library settings. Susan McGlamery and Steve Coffman (2000) write that although it is too early to determine the effectiveness of such web contact center software, it may be readily adaptable to the new reference environment, which uses a number of web resources to answer inquiries. In an article published in 2001, Coffman notes that a combination of web contact center software and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) shows promise for reference services. The application would allow the reference librarian to guide the user through web searches and hold a voice conversation through the same web connection, as though they were talking over the telephone. This technology would also solve some of the challenges that the digital environment presents in conducting an effective reference interview.

Joseph Janes (1998), a faculty member in the School of Information at the University of Washington, was one of the first to be involved in digital reference service. In 1995, Janes taught at the University of Michigan and wanted to provide his students with a laboratory for learning and doing reference and at the same time merge the strengths of the traditional, physical library with the virtual and timeless features of the World Wide Web. Thus was born the Internet Public Library (IPL). Janes specializes in researching the use, integration, and effect of digital reference services.

A number of other library-based and commercial digital reference services were established beginning in the early 1990s. David Lankes (1998), a pioneer in the field of electronic reference services, defines digital reference as Internet-based question and answer services that connect users with individuals who possess specialized subject or skill expertise. Digital reference services are often called "AskA services" because of the names of services such as Ask A Scientist. Many of these services cater to kindergarten through high school students. One example of such a service is KidsConnect, a project of the American Association of School Librarians.

On a large scale, the Library of Congress, in cooperation with a number of reference service providers, is experimenting internationally with a cooperative web-based reference service called the Collaborative Digital Reference Service. The goal of the project is to provide a service that is available seven days a week and twenty-four hours a day to users around the world. Libraries in North America, Australia, Europe, and Asia are part of the pilot program. The service combines the strengths of local library collections and staff with those of librarians around the world.

Stuart Sutton, in a 1996 article discussing the future roles of reference librarians, comments that "a library's principle goal is the creation of a context that increases the probability that the user will find the information he or she needs," regardless of whether this is through face-to-face service or through technological means. Reference librarians provide the value and context to information, helping users to ferret out what they need, providing instruction to guide the work, and teaching evaluation skills.

Electronic reference is the future, and reference librarians need to be actively involved in the development of systems that ensure quality and retain the human element. Technology affords reference librarians the opportunity to work internationally to provide timely, accurate, and expert reference services to all users. A major challenge facing reference librarians is the ability to retain the value of performing reference work as a highly personalized service in a largely digital environment.

See also:Cataloging and Knowledge Organization; Internet and the World Wide Web; Knowledge Management; Librarians;Libraries, Functions and Types of; Libraries, Digital; Libraries, History of; Libraries, National; Library Associations and Consortia; Library Automation; Retrieval of Information.


American Association of School Librarians. (1988). Information Power: Guidelines for School Library Media Programs. Chicago: American Library Association.

American Association of School Librarians. (1998). Information Power: Building Partnerships for Learning. Chicago: American Library Association.

Association of College and Research Libraries. (2000). "Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education." <>.

Benton Foundation. (1996). Buildings, Books, and Bytes: Libraries and Communities in the Digital Age. Washington, DC: Benton Foundation.

Bunge, Charles. (1980). "Reference Services." In ALA World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services, ed. Robert Wedgeworth. Chicago: American Library Association.

Campbell, Jerry D. (1992). "Shaking the Conceptual Foundations of Reference: A Perspective." Reference Services Review 20:29-36.

Coffman, Steve. (2001). "Distance Education and Virtual Reference: Where Are We Headed?" Computers in Libraries 21:21-25.

Ferguson, Chris. (2000). "Shaking the Conceptual Foundations, Too: Integrating Research and Technology Support for the Next Generation of Information Service." College and Research Libraries 61:300-311.

Ferguson, Chris, and Bunge, Charles. (1997). "The Shape of Services to Come: Values-Based Reference Service for the Largely Digital Library." College and Research Libraries 58:252-265.

Green, Samuel Swett. (1876). "Personal Relations Between Librarians and Readers." American Library Journal 1:74-81.

Internet Public Library. (2001). "The Internet Public Library." <>.

Janes, Joseph. (1998). "The Internet Public Library: An Intellectual History." Library Hi Tech 16:55-68.

Lankes, R. David. (1998). AskA Starter Kit: How to Build and Maintain Digital Reference Services. Syracuse: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology.

Library of Congress. (2001). "Collaborative Digital Reference Services." <>.

Lipow, Anne Grodzins, ed. (1993). Rethinking Reference in Academic Libraries. Berkeley, CA: Library Solutions Press.

Massey-Burzio, Virginia. (1992). "Reference Encounters of a Different Kind: A Symposium." Journal of Academic Librarianship 18:276-286.

McGlamery, Susan, and Coffman, Steve. (2000). "Moving Reference to the Web." Reference and User Services Quarterly. 39:380-386.

Reference and User Services Association. (1996). "Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Services Professionals." <>.

Reference and User Services Association. (2000). "Guidelines for Information Services." <>.

Rothstein, Samuel. (1961). "Reference Services: The New Dimension in Librarianship." College and Research Libraries 22:11-18.

Saricks, Joyce G., and Brown, Nancy. (1997). Readers' Advisory Service in the Public Library, 2nd edition. Chicago: American Library Association.

Sutton, Stuart A. (1996). "Future Service Models and the Convergence of Functions: The Reference Librarian as Technician, Author, and Consultant." Reference Librarian 54:125-143.

Wilson, Lizabeth A. (1995). "Instruction as a Reference Service." In Reference and Information Services: An Introduction, ed. Richard E. Bopp and Linda C. Smith. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

Wyer, James I. (1930). Reference Work: A Textbook for Students of Library Work and Librarians. Chicago: American Library Association.

Nancy Huling