3 Lessons I Learned from a Reference Librarian

Reference librarian: A librarian employed in a reference department who is responsible for providing helpful information in response to questions posed by users of the library.


Dilbert, by Scott Adams. Published February 19, 1990. Retrieved from http://dilbert.com/strip/1990-02-19.


Reference librarianship is well ingrained into all areas of librarianship. Whether your focus is systems, youth services, access services, adaptive technology or archives, it is very likely you will be called upon to answer questions from the public. And while we may not know quite everything, we at least need to know where to find it.

One of my classes this semester is a reference-focused course. One of our recent assignments was to shadow a reference librarian in order to gain insight into the process. Having  a circulation and public-service heavy background, I thought it would be no sweat. However, I found myself learning much more than I expected.

Lesson 1: The shift to e-resources is really, actually happening.

I chose to shadow a librarian at Marymount University, a small, private institution in Arlington, VA. When I arrived, the librarian was helping a faculty member access an e-book. The Marymount community in particular greatly prefers e-resources in almost every discipline. They have integrated databases, textbooks and libguides into their curriculum so completely that they are planning to remove a significant chunk of their physical reference collection in order to make room for more communal study spaces.

We talk a lot about e-resources becoming preferred, especially in academic libraries, in order to facilitate portability and off-campus access. Personally, I have not seen e-resources integrated so completely into a community, which directly affects reference librarian interactions. Instead of traveling to the shelves with a patron to find a book, librarians at Marymount point students and faculty to databases and libguides almost exclusively in order to answer reference questions. It was a mere four years ago the last time I worked in an academic library, but even then e-resources tended to be secondary to physical books. In this respect, Marymount may be ahead of its peers.


Lesson 2: Reference librarian interactions don’t just happen behind the reference desk. 

Another aspect of Marymount reference librarianship that surprised me was the amount of classroom time librarians have with students. They are each assigned their subject areas, and meet frequently with specific classes, especially introductory and seminar courses, in order to teach students about the databases and libguides available to help them in their research. To me, this seemed like a classic “teach a man to fish” dream scenario for librarians: introduce a large number of students to the resources you have to offer, so that they may find and utilize them when they need them. Consequently, the kinds of questions asked at the reference desk while I was there were limited to “Do you have any pens/pencils/scissors/tape” or “Does the library have this book?” While reference librarians at Marymount still receive reference questions at the desk, via chat and through email, the amount of exposure they get in the classroom changes the classic reference desk dynamic.


Lesson 3: If you sit behind the reference desk, people will assume that you know things.

There were moments when the librarian I was shadowing was fielding questions from students – helping them print or log on to their accounts – and I was left behind the desk by myself. I was diligently taking notes about my observations, but then found that people were asking me questions. The first was about borrowing scissors, and after rifling through some drawers I happily obliged. Others I had to refer to the circulation desk, awkwardly explaining that I didn’t actually work there. It really did surprise me that the students trusted me so implicitly, just because I sat behind that desk. It is a great responsibility indeed, to be the gateway through which users access information. Though in the past, I had regarded this aspect of librarianship more casually, I now have a much better understanding and respect for it.

Interested in more resources on reference librarianship? Check out hacker posts on reference internships, multiculturalism in reference services, and another perspective on the significance of reference service. If you too are interested in reference in academic settings, don’t miss this ACRL article on what students need from reference librarians.


Image from Duke University Archives on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license 2.0.



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