Reference is dead! Long live reference!

I’ve been working through the 500+ tweets from our first Twitter chat on Monday night and I wanted to highlight some comments and ideas that jumped out at me. I thought I’d sum them up in a blog post.

You can access all 500+ tweets in the story on Storify.

What is reference work?

In this week’s readings, you will have seen reference work defined in various ways.

One of the articles in particular celebrated a particular type of reference work, where librarians with highly specialised knowledge of collections and other information sources direct enquirers to information or provide them with answers. This type of work is not as common anymore. It still happens in special libraries (law and health libraries in particular) and in libraries with complex or special collections (like libraries with archival or pictorial collections, for example the National Library of Australia). One of the guest tweeters on Monday night, Holger Aman, is a reference librarian in a law library.

He makes a great point: there is still a role for traditional reference work in some environments. The definition below comes from the Elmer E. Rasmuson Library’s website, as a preamble to a guide about finding and using reference sources. It’s quite a thorough definition that’s also easy to understand. (It also has a great definition of different types of reference sources.)

The function of libraries is three-fold. Libraries acquire information, organize that information in a way it can be retrieved, and disseminate the information the library has acquired. Reference services fulfills this last function. Reference services may vary from library to library, but most libraries have an information or Reference Desk where assistance from a librarian is available. Almost all libraries also provide reference services via the telephone and in many libraries you can email your reference question, or Ask a Librarian, to a reference librarian who will e-mail you back with the answers. There are three main types of reference assistance:

  • Assistance or instruction in the use of the library, including location of materials, use of the catalog, use of computers to access information, and the use of basic reference sources.
  • Assistance in identifying library materials needed to answer a question.
  • Providing brief, factual answers to questions, such as addresses, statistics, phone numbers, etc. that can be quickly located.

The way we provide these services has changed, and many users are more independent, or think they are able to find the information they need because access to information is almost ubiquitous, but reference work still happens in libraries of all types. 

Reference work versus reference transaction

In the Twitter chat, the distinction was made between reference work and a reference transaction.

A reference transaction is an interaction with a user. It might happen online in real time (via chat), via email, over the phone, or face to face at a reference desk.

Reference transactions are a part of reference work, but there’s more to it than that.

Reference work also involves managing reference collections, teaching customers how to search for information, developing reference tools like subject guides, providing liaison services, teaching customers to use bibliographic management software like EndNote… and so on.

Some people find it difficult to ask for help

Some people indicated they find it difficult to ask for help or they only do it as a last resort.

This really stood out to me as I reread the tweets. If we find it difficult to ask for help, as savvy library users who are learning to be librarians, then how difficult must it be for other customers with less ‘library confidence’ to front up and ask for help?

Some people are just disinclined to ask for help

Clare made a great point:

I think I probably fit into the hunter category. I just prefer to get on and get it done.

Do people ask for help because our products aren’t great?

There was one comment about people using chat rather than searching the catalogue because they might be lazy. But I think there might be another story here. Often, I think people have to ask questions because we do a poor job of things like search and information architecture on our websites.

What do you think?

Is it time we dropped the word ‘reference’?

If ‘reference’ is changing, does the word still fit? One of our guest tweeters thinks so:

I posed this question in the Twitter chat, and many of you thought the term was confusing and should be changed. We also had people from industry chime in and tell us how they label ‘reference’ in their libraries. Here’s a selection of some of the tweets.



There’s more to reference than handing out answers

You guys pointed out an important truth: reference work is about more than handing out answers. We’ve got a role to play in teaching customers to be self sufficient.

In a few weeks time, we’re going to be talking about information and digital literacy, so we’ll revisit this idea of teaching our customers to fish.

Over to you

So those were some things that stood out for me. What jumped out for you?

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