Use service concepts, principles and techniques that facilitate information access, relevance, and accuracy for individuals or groups of users.


This competency primarily concerns itself with what is otherwise referred to in a broad sense as reference. That is to say: the interfacing of the patron to the collection by means of service. For what good is a collection, no matter the grandeur and scope, without the means to inquire within it? Reference provides a means by which the patron might inquire. While reference once meant face time with a librarian in a physical plant or perhaps more rarely a phone call, reference has in the contemporary age, like most things in the information science profession, been transformed by innovations in technology. Reference may very well imply an online chat, video conference or email exchange at the time of this writing, and experiments are currently being done with virtual reality reference within platforms such as Second Life. It must be stated that reference is in a state of flux: at the time of this writing all the rave within the literature is integrated virtual reference systems, answered in part with dissent of the old guard. The former appears triumphant if one might measure success by funding and news trends, even if transitioning amidst upheaval. Services like Meebo have changed the field.

While in near past libraries were falling out of favor with the public due to interaction deprived, silo-rich, static web presences, the field has been awakened to the reality of a Web 2.0 world obsessed with Web 2.0 pillars in defiance of the old. One can expect to visit most library websites as of this writing and within a moment’s time be engaged in a live chat with a librarian. These chats may mimic the face to face transactions, perhaps to a fault (as I explore in the observations below), but they nevertheless have become prolific. The proliferation of such technologies can be attributed to extensible, robust, free technologies such as the aforementioned Meebo. Any librarian who can use a chat program can now talk to patrons from anywhere in the world, and often do so in large interconnected networks of federated service organizations. While these services are rapidly becoming standard companions in the librarian’s reference repertoire, as with the pell-mell adoption of the digital record (a central problem of our profession explored in competency VI) , the haste of this transition is not without issue. I offer an overview of the problems of this new paradigm in my fourth piece of evidence below, which I will not belabor by summarizing here. Suffice to say, virtual reference offers a number of challenges for the upcoming generation of librarians. I have responded to these latter concerns by studying the full breadth of reference and by cautioning to not rely on the apparently messianic technologies of the day.

Yet let this not diminish the importance of reference service. Service to the user is an essential skill of a librarian. A librarian is not merely a technician who organizes information, but also provides a means by which to inquire within it. If the former was defining, the library would be a warehouse rather than an extension of the educational system. Good reference work combines verbal, visual and empathetic skills, founded on a basic understanding of information search theory, implemented by a proficiency with information retrieval. Reference work often manifests in a “reference interview.” Sheldrick et al define 5 stages for a reference interview:

  • Welcoming the user and establishing a relationship
  • Querying the user for basic information regarding the inquest and understanding it in the context of research and personal needs
  • Defining and confirming the question
  • “Intervention” which involves guiding the user to information materials, as well as additional forms of assistance and support
  • Finishing, involving an overview of the transaction as well as review and offering of final assistance

All well and good when laid out, but there is added complexity to every layer in the depth of human interaction. Librarians, contrary to society’s stereotypes, must be outgoing guides who are obsessed with an empathetical understanding of the patron’s query. Failure to exhibit a keen sense of empathy and exact reasoning results in a service prone to imprecision or irrelevance. Thus, this competency is married to others, at least in my mind, particularly III and X. The former refers to a librarian’s ability to recognize the social, cultural and economic dimensions of information use while the latter refers to an understanding of information seeking behavior. Without these two disciplines mastered, reference service is of poor stock, and may often miss the mark; the user may walk away without his information needs fulfilled, often due to lack of review by the librarian. In this sense reference should be guided by a systematic method of querying and comprehending the user, within the context of culture and findings of the literature.

For reference is a journey which I associate closely with Socratic dialogue. The patron often does not know what he wants, and it is the job of the librarian to play Socrates. That is to say: it is the job of the librarian to probe and clarify, and to provide wisdom, until the user is empowered to find the resources he needs. Asking open ended questions, avoiding assumptions and otherwise exercising Carl Sagan’s “Baloney Detection Kit” are rightfully virtues. The librarian is the Virgil to the proverbial Dante. Alarmingly, it may be the case that the majority of librarians do not behave in such a fashion and thus the majority of patrons do not meet their information needs following the conclusion of a reference interview. Childers (1978) demonstrated that across the public library system of a large portion of New York State (Suffolk County), librarians only helped users achieve their information needs (That is: discern their actual question and answer it accurately or empower the user to do so) 20% of the time. While the study is dated by today’s standards, its findings suggest widespread methodological failings in librarian’s reference efforts. Connaway (2010) found comparable findings and is of much more recent scholarship.

The grand project of our times will be achieving empathetic, comprehensive dialogue while simultaneously supporting the technologies the end-user has come to expect. In supporting these technologies prudent application of principles must be applied so as to ensure quality, accuracy and coherence of service. If the basic interactions between the patron and librarian are at fault, technologies do little but add layers of access to an inferior service. In this sense librarians must have a mastery of the method of information finding, comprehensive inquiry and technological expertise in order to do good by their vocation. This is a challenge and task which I have embraced.

Applied Work

While at SJSU I have extensively studied  and written on service concepts, producing a substantial amount of work while taking David Midyette’s class on reference.

The first two pieces of applied work I present are exercises in practical reference transactions I furnished for Professor Midyette’s class. These exercises contain a series of theoretical reference scenarios and corresponding responses by myself as librarian. The responses are constituted by several components which speak to the breadth of information access service concepts: answer, source, search strategy and remarks on methodology of reference. While the first exercise focuses on the use of online resources and search strategies to respond to reference queries, the second is restricted to physical and more traditional reference sources. These two exercises demonstrate my ability to perform reference work with the patron, as well as my technique and skill in facilitating information access.

My third piece of evidence is an observation report on a local public library I performed. The report involves an observation of the library’s reference services, and a critique of service. I had first hand experience with acting as a patron and observing the reference interactions of other librarians. This experienced provided a venue to apply my theoretical academic understanding of reference to an instance of service. In the report I also comment on the methodology of reference observed, comparing it against Sheldrick et al’s standard 5 stage process.

My fourth piece of evidence is another observation in which I compare and contrast virtual and traditional reference. The examination is conducted in three parts: a summary of interaction by the author in a participation of both virtual and intimate interview, a comparative study, and finally: what the literature has to say about a few of the issues surrounding such media. Transcripts of my participation as a patron in a virtual reference view will be provided for the reader’s consideration. For purposes of this work I have participated in reference interviews at Patchogue Medford Public Library in New York, as well as Fordham and Georgetown universities virtually.

My last and the fifth piece of evidence demonstrating mastery is yet another observational study in which I act as a virtual patron in a group assignment for the same class. Within are the chat transcripts of a virtual reference interaction, a close analysis of communication and information access exchanges and a critical comparison of the covered services. I am completely responsible for the study; the group portion of this project was merely in a pairing of simulated librarian and patron for the exchange.

Together these works, amongst others, constitute a clear mastery and understanding of reference work. Not only do these works express a theoretical understanding of techniques and procedures for facilitating information access but they also explore the breadth of the human factor and the practical extensions of library work.

Exercise in Reference Work #1: Electronic Resources (.PDF)

Exercise in Reference Work #2: Paper Resources (.PDF)

Observation #1: Patchogue-Medford Library (.PDF)

Observation #2: Virtual versus Traditional Reference (.PDF)

Observation #3: As Virtual Patron (.PDF)


Breitbach, W., Mallard, M., & Sage, R. (2009) Using Meebo’s embedded IM for academic reference services: a case study. Reference Services Review 37(1), 83-98.

Childers, T. (1978). The Effectiveness of Information Service in Public Libraries: Suffolk County: Final Report. Philadelphia, PA: Drexel University, School of Library, and Information Science.

Coffman, S.& Arret, L. (2004). To Chat or Not to Chat — Taking Yet Another Look at Virtual Reference, Part 2. Searcher V. 1 No. 8 (September 2004) P. 49-.

Connaway, L. , & Radford, M. (2010). Virtual reference service quality: Critical components for adults and the net-generation. Libri V. 60 No. 2 (June 2010) P. 165-80, 60(2), 165-180.

Olszewski, L. , & Rumbaugh, P. (2010). An international comparison of virtual reference services. Reference & User Services Quarterly V. 49 No. 4 (Summer 2010) P. 360-8, 49(4), 360-368.

Sheldrick, C, Nilsen, K, & Dewdney, P. (2002). Conducting the reference interview: a how-to-do-it manual for librarians. Neal Schuman Pub. p. 3.

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