Week 3: Reference

Twitter chat

When Monday 3 August, 6pm – 7pm
Topic Reference
Hashtag #ifn614refchat
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New to Twitter chats? Check out the post on participating in a Twitter chat.


When Monday 3 August, 7pm – 8pm
Where Online: Adobe Connect
What  We’ll debrief the activities from the Week 2 class
Can’t make it to class? In class we ran through the buzzword bingo card, and I forgot to hit record. So we’re compiling definitions of the buzzword bingo terms in a post on the teaching team blog. If you attended, please contribute!

Definitions and background

This week, our topic is ‘reference’. Let’s set the scene with some definitions and background.

The Reference and User Services Association, which is a division of the American Library Association, provides the following definitions:

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 following bullets clarify what is meant by terms within the Reference Work definition.)

  • 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.

A personal reflection on the changing nature of reference work

When I studied librarianship, we had a whole unit on reference service provision, covering reference interviews, references collection management, ready reference tools, searching, and reference service design, delivery and evaluation. My first job at QUT Library was a position that had the title Reference Librarian. Most of my time was spent staffing the reference desk at Gardens Point or the virtual (chat) reference service (at that stage only available a few hours a day), plus I spent some time answering email enquiries too. The other big part of my role was assisting the liaison librarians that worked with the faculty of business in ordering books. On my first day in the library, I was sent to the print reference collection with the instruction that I was to get familiar with it.

I left QUT for the National Library, where I completed nine months of rotations through the library on the graduate program. My favourite placement was in the reference service area, where I felt at home because I had an affinity for working with customers, I had experience working with a system that was being implemented to manage virtual reference, and I made a meaningful contribution to work in the area (which is often not the case on a graduate program, where the aim is to get familiar with the business of the organisation rather than to get work done). When I finished the graduate program, I ended up cataloguing serials, and I got myself back to reference services as quickly as I could! As a reference librarian, I spent my time answering email enquiries from people all around the country and the world, working on subject guides, staffing the reference desks in three of the library’s reading rooms, staffing the virtual reference service AskNow, and contributing to the administration of AskNow. Eventually, I ended up looking after the reader education program at the library and running the first collaborative instant messaging (IM) reference service across the national libraries of Australia and New Zealand and all of the Australian state libraries. (You can read about the AskNow IM trial in this article in Australian Library Journal.) I loved my job as a reference librarian and both I and my boss wondered how I would fare moving to a back of house, specialist role when I left the National Library.

On revisiting the literature related to reference services as I was selecting readings for this week, I encountered words like evolutionrethinking, and reinventing absolutely everywhere. Revisiting the literature confirmed what I knew from experience and observation: reference work has changed significantly since I was a reference librarian.

Reference then and now

This week, I want you to get familiar with what ‘reference’ means now, and what it meant in the past.

Why am I getting you to think about the past? My personal view is that we are hanging on to remnants of the way things used to be when it’s time we let those go.

I’ll give you one example that’s a particular soap box of mine: subject guides. Subject guides are detailed guides to what’s in the collection on a given subject. Many libraries still produce them, and it’s my opinion that most of the libraries that still create subject guides shouldn’t be producing them at all. I’m going to leave you to draw your own conclusions on this subject as you read and discuss this week.

The term ‘reference’ is intrinsically linked to the idea of a reference collection and I wonder if continuing to use this term ties us to old models and old ways of thinking.

To help you understand where the term has come from, it’s important to consider what reference used to be and what it is today.

Things to read and watch

learning-materials-iconVerma, H. (2012). Reaching the Wikipedia generation: reference roundtable tackles trends and thorny issues. Library Journal, (April 2012).

Barner, K. (2011). The library is a growing organism: Ranganathan’s fifth law of library science and the academic library in the digital era. Library Philosophy and Practice, (September 2011), 1-9.

Saunders, L. (2012). The reality of reference: responsibilities and competencies for current reference librarians. Public Library Services, 8(2), 114-135.

Verdesca, A. (2015). What’s in a word: coming to terms with reference. The Reference Librarian, 56(1), 67-72. *

* There’s a part two to this article too. It’s very interesting, but I don’t want to overload you with reading, so it’s an optional read.

Things to do

assessment-iconWeekly learning activity

You need to complete your first weekly learning activity for the semester. You can complete any of the six activity types that are included in Assignment 1.

Marks for submission date

Remember, there are additional marks for submitting this activity within particular time periods. Usually, the breakdown is:

  • Submit by the end of the nominated week: 2 additional marks
  • Submit by the end of the following week: 1 additional mark
  • Submit after the end of the following week but before the next check point: 0 additional marks

I released the Week 3 materials later than planned, so for Week 3 only, the additional marks will be allocated as follows:

  • Submit by the end of Week 4: 2 additional marks
  • Submit by the end of Week 5: 1 additional mark
  • Submit after Week 5 but before check point 1 at the end of Week 8: 0 additional marks

Sub topics or related concepts you might like to deal with in your activities

  • Subject guides
  • Virtual reference
  • Social media reference services
  • Mobile devices and impact on reference
  • Demise of reference work
  • Relationship between information literacy instruction and reference work
  • Reference in particular library or GLAM types

This isn’t an exhaustive list. Rather, it’s intended to give you some ideas for where you might start.

reminder-iconThings to do by the end of Week 2

Have you completed the list of things you needed to do by the end of Week 2? If not, or you’re not sure, please take a look at the list and get onto it as soon as you can.