9 Reference Librarianship

Reference is a key part of each librarian’s responsibility. Patrons will come to all librarians, and even library workers, and ask them questions regarding materials in the library or even things not directly related to the library. Libraries have a reputation of being information centers for the community. There are four basic types of questions asked in a library.

  • The directional question is straightforward and deals location or existence of a service or resource. For this type, a reference interview is usually not necessary and the librarian/technician’s own knowledge is enough to answer the question.
  • Ready reference questions are usually quick, single-fact queries. It could be an isolated statistic or fact that requires verification and fact-finding. Sources often used to answer the ready reference questions are encyclopedias, almanacs, statistical compendiums, directories, dictionaries, and well as a Web search engine (Google, Ask). This type of question may require a reference interview for clarification.
  • Specific search questions are more involved and more time-consuming that ready reference questions. This type of search usually begins with finding information for an overview or background of the subject. A wide range of sources may be used to fulfill the informational needs of this user, such as books, periodicals, government documents, and Web sites. The specific search definitely requires a reference interview in order to extract facts and to determine the direction that should be taken.
  • The research question is the highest level of information seeking. This type of question may require an ongoing investigation, and will probably include using an assortment of primary and secondary sources. The reference interview in this case could be quite lengthy in order to determine the topic, determine what research and sources has already been accomplished, the technical level of information required, and many other details.

In order to answer the last two types of questions, and possibly in order to answer the second type, librarians should conduct a Reference Interview. This gives the librarian context for the query and helps them facilitate research abilities in the patron. The five parts of a reference interview are:

  • Initial question: User asks the question to reference librarian/technician.
  • Clarification of question: Librarian starts a dialog in an effort to clarify the real needs of the user and to try to obtain more information.
  • Translating the question into potential library sources: Librarian takes the lead by suggesting potential sources and determining what has already been consulted, and then they devise a search strategy.
  • The search: The reference librarian or technician leads the user through the search of appropriate sources. At the same time, they implement point-of-use instruction with each resource consulted so that the user gains some knowledge for future independent searching.
  • Follow-up: As the search progresses, the librarian should ask the patron, “Is this what you are looking for?” to be sure that the search is on the right track. When leaving the patron, the librarian should always add, “Let me know if you need more help.” This lets the user know that they can come back for more help.

Virtual Reference is a facet of reference librarianship that occurs when either the patron or the librarian, or both, cannot meet with each other face to face for any reason. This was a resource that became popular in the 2000s but became absolutely vital during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Norms formed during that time have affected the norms now, even though the medical necessity of physical separation has ended. Virtual reference is a key part of the modern library.

According to the American Library Association, Information Literacy is a set of abilities requiring individuals to ‘recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information. With advances in technologies in the classroom and in the library, it is important that students are well-educated on how to locate and evaluate information. This is one skill that will be used by the student throughout their life. The American Library Association has created a detailed LibGuide for linking to information literacy resources. The Association of College & Research Libraries (a division of the American Libraries Association) has published a Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education that is geared toward students. It gives them hallmarks of research “experts” and describes how “novice learners” can progress to become experts in information literacy. Another wonderful resource about information literacy is The Information Literacy User’s Guide: An Open, Online Textbook.

Important Features of Library Items

An important aspect of the reference interview is teaching patrons how to find the right items. If they are researching a topic, this includes helping them discover accurate and verifiable information in the best sources. There are multiple facets of a research item that should be stressed by the librarian when conducting a reference interview for a research question. If applicable, similar facets of other types of items should be stressed during reference interviews for other types of items.

An Abstract is a brief summary of an academic book, article, or other work. It usually explains the bases of the work and its arguments, the credentials of the author(s), and the conclusion of the work and future research that could be done based on this conclusion. Typically, the abstract includes keywords that can inform the reader what the general tone and feel of the work will be. Abstracts are excellent places to begin research when you have gathered a body of possible resources from databases and other search results.

Authoritative resources are those that have either stood the test of time or are so important despite their relative youth that they are held up as a litmus test and gold standard for other works in their field. They are so well-researched that almost anything they say is taken as valid. Authoritative works are usually written by academic authors, but there is an increasing movement for academia to accept the viewpoints of non-academic experienced workers and others who have valid perspectives. It is important to note that an individual who has written an authoritative work or body of work in one field is not an authority in all fields. For example, Neil deGrasse Tyson is not an expert on Islamic jurisprudence. William Byrd was not an expert in geology but was an authoritative Baroque composer. Ensure that authoritative works and authors are speaking on things they actually know about.

Association is the quality of being connected with a particular movement, school of thought, institution, or person. The association of a work with an established and respected university at the top of a particular field (the Huntsman Cancer Institute, for example), will help the credibility of an article (a paper on the perception of millennials on cancer). It is again important to note that the association of an item or its author(s) is not the most important factor when determining its accuracy and reliability. In writing this textbook and the previous one on Cataloging, I consulted academic, public, private, and open-source materials. Do not discount an item or author because of their associations or lack of associations.

A Bibliography is an excellent place to start, particularly ones from articles you have already deemed appropriate, accurate, and well-written. Look at the sources they cite most. Look at their acknowledgments. Look for bibliographies of works by the authors of the page. Ideally, you would do brief read-throughs of keywords in the abstracts of each of these papers. However, time constraints may limit your ability to do that. I only do that myself if a bibliography has up to twenty resources, which occurs very rarely. My practice is to go through and pick one from every five papers in a long bibliography. Then, I assess them by the criteria mentioned in this list.

Credentials are signals of two things: achievement and knowledge and association. Where one gets one’s credential probably has more weight than it should on how well their research is received. However, the ability, knowledge, skills, and tenacity required to achieve credentials from anywhere show that the author probably knows what they are talking about. IT also signifies that they know how to engage in effective and accurate research in their chosen field.

Ephemera are things that are virtually useless in research most times. However, they may be useful in some pinches. They mostly occur in special library collections such as those found in archives. They can also be found in articles and books if you look hard enough. These include things like excessive details in acknowledgments, passing comments, and other items. These can provide clues to background information, possible biases, sources of emphasis in the authors’ work, and other things. You should not go into a research resource looking for ephemera, but they can give context for your understanding.

Peer Review is the process through which the best academic resources must go for approval and publishing. If an article or academic book has not been peer-reviewed, you should probably not use it in your research and you should definitely not use it in any work product or publication you make. While corporate and private work products have not probably been peer-reviewed, there are comparable quality standards and benchmarks you should look for. In the absence of a meaningful peer review or any review of a work that does not claim to be academic in nature, give extra emphasis to credentials and associations.




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Introduction to Library and Information Science Copyright © 2023 by College of Southern Idaho is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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