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Reference and Information Services

Definition of Reference Services

According to Reference and User Service Association (RUSA), reference service is defined as:

Reference Transactions are information consultations in which library staff recommend, interpret, evaluate, and/or use information resources to help others to meet particular information needs. Reference transactions do not include formal instruction or exchanges that provide assistance with locations, schedules, equipment, supplies, or policy statements.

Reference Work includes reference transactions and other activities that involve the creation, management, and assessment of information or research resources, tools, and services. The tasks associated with reference work includes:

    • Creation and management of information resources includes the development and maintenance of research collections, research guides, catalogs, databases, web sites, search engines, etc., that patrons can use independently, in-house or remotely, to satisfy their information needs.
    • Assessment activities include the measurement and evaluation of reference work, resources, and services.

[Source: Admin. (2019, September 11). Definitions of Reference. Retrieved from]

Although dated, the following description of reference service is as relevant today as it was in 1980:

Reference service sometimes referred to as “reference and information services” or “reader services” has been defined as personal assistance provided to users in the pursuit of information. As distinguished from other library activities or services, reference service is characterized by a high degree of personal interaction between library staff members and library users … 

[Source: Charles A. Bunge (1999) Reference Services, The Reference Librarian, 31:66, 185-199, DOI: 10.1300/J120v31n66_17]

Staff who provide front-line reference service must have excellent communication and interpersonal skills. The full set of skillsets for a reference librarian includes research and search savvy and knowledge of the many print and electronic tools available. Digital literacy and customer service training are topics of discussion for bloggers and library professionals. This means that there are many learning tools and sources of information that both library customers and staff can use.

Functions of Reference Service

In 1942, The American Library Association (ALA) stated the six functions of reference service:

  1. The supervision function.
    • Proper organization of facilities
    • Selection of reference materials
    • Direction of personnel
    • Study of the library clientele
  2. The information function.
  3. The guidance function.
  4. The instruction function.
  5. The bibliographic function.
  6. The appraisal function

For more detailed information on the functions, please view the SlideShare presentation:

SlideShare – Reference Services

Library Reference in the Digital Age

Are the proceeding definitions still relevant in today’s digital world and in an era where library customers are becoming more self-sufficient? In this 2015 article, Where Reference Fits in the Modern Library, Brian Kenney stated:

So what do people want from us? They want help doing things, rather than finding things. You could argue that users have always wanted this, and you’d be right. But the extent of this shift in recent years is unprecedented in the history of library services.

A lot of what people want help with involves technology. Sometimes it is assistance with the technology we offer at the library—downloading e-books for example. But often it’s more involved: creating and improving resumes, conducting job searches, uploading files, seeking insurance information. E-government has landed squarely in the library’s lap, and we’re finding that citizens regularly need help utilizing government sites.

Helping patrons do things is radically different from traditional reference. It requires different knowledge from library staff, and greater flexibility in time and staffing, so that a librarian can actually work with a patron for 30 minutes and not just refer them to a book, or a class.

The change in reference service means new skillsets for library staff.  In a follow-up article, The Changing World of Library Reference, Andrew Pace, stated.

Reference librarians should not be as passive as those old reference resources that stood on the shelves, waiting to spill their treasures,” he says. “We should be striving to get to the root of the patron’s problem. Not ‘what are you looking for?’ or even ‘how can I help you?’ but ‘what problem are you trying to solve?

In order to illustrate this change in service, Hamilton Public Library undertook a study, Research Study to Analyze Changing User Behaviour and Expectation of Reference Services: Revised Final Reportto determine the need for library reference services. The key findings of the report included:

It would appear that there is an ongoing shift to questions of a directional or technical
nature and a significant reduction in information needs of the type traditionally defined as ‘in-depth’
or even ‘ready reference’.

We note the increasing impact of more complex technology – photocopiers, printing, payments
through accounts, BiblioCommons registration requirements, networked telephones and
workstation booking. The public are faced with more technical challenges which result in a growing
number of questions and problems to resolve for the Reference front line staff.

Some of the traditional reference skills can still be applied in the new world of reference services including the reference interview and search strategies. However, it’s clear that library staff need a technology focus that assists customers with the challenges of the digital age. Combining reference and digital literacy skills will enable today’s library staff to respond accurately and confidently to the diverse questions asked by library customers.

More Topics

Reference Education and Training

Types of Questions

Virtual Reference Services


Professional Competencies for Reference and User Services Librarians – As the professional organization for reference and user services, the Reference and Users Services Association (RUSA) has developed and updated a model statement of competencies essential for successful reference and user services librarians.

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