Reference librarianship in a collegiate environment

After quite a long hiatus, I have returned to Cultural Heritage and Information. I aim to get back to posting regularly, every Wednesday or Thursday.

Today’s subject is a personal one – what I’ve been learning in my newest position as a reference specialist at a small library in a large community college library network.


The library I work in has a very diverse population of users, with students and community patrons from around the globe. My evening shifts coincide with some of the busiest hours, since many students work during the day and attend school at night. The library is smallish, with a main collection of non-fiction, academic books, a designated computer room as well as computers on the main floor, access to several large and subject-oriented databases, a DVD section and a small section devoted to rotating fiction books.

Learning on the job – and the importance of on-the-job training

Most trained librarians will have taken a course in reference while completing their graduate degrees. So did I. And I learned a lot, and got to work on some informative and innovative projects. I did not realize the distance between education and experience was so great. I have learned in the past three months that, while reference principles are very important foundations for successful reference work, the learning curve for providing reference assistance on the job is steep.

I now feel confident that I am providing students the tools and tips they need to successfully search and find information at the library. After several weeks of asking questions of my fellow reference librarians, and listening while they explain search techniques to students, I remember the questions to ask in the interviews, and the steps to demonstrate in searching for answers. I still have questions, and I am always learning, but the reference interviews feel more successful now.

One thing I am still getting used to: Not being able to find the answer. There are times I can do no more than point a student down all the paths they can take to find the information they require, instead of leading them to the best response. What helps in these situations? Thoroughly going over the various options, tools and resources available. I hope that as I continue to learn and practice, and become familiar with various subjects, that more and more often I will be able to lead them to the “best” answer. In the meantime, my coworkers make knowledgeable additional resources.

The differences between reference librarianship and customer service

Initially, I imagined reference work, with its superficial similarities to customer service (I’ll get into those later), would feel very like customer service. I have found that there are more significant differences than I thought. Most of the interactions I have had so far have been enlightening. Each one is slightly different, even when two students ask for resources for the same project. In many cases, I have been slowly getting to know individual students, who return with new questions. In a way, we are able to build working relationships. I begin to learn about how they conceptualize assignments and research questions, and they begin to trust that I will do my best to help them. This is one of my favorite parts of working in a collegiate environment – helping the “regulars,” if you will, with different questions.

Reference questions are not as simple as many customer service questions. The RUSA guidelines and numerous steps in a reference interview are core principles of instruction in reference. And yet, I did not recognize how the processes differ between customer service and reference. Customer service interactions involve many of the same steps (visibility/approachability, interest, listening, and following up), but since questions are often narrower in scope, inquiring and searching steps tend not to be as heavily involved, unless the problem is a Problem. Customer service interactions are often more focused on “solving” than on “searching.” In short, a reference interview feels more complex than a customer service interaction.

The similarities of reference librarianship and customer service

I have already hinted at some of the similarities between reference librarianship and customer service. The most essential similarity is the purpose of these activities: to help a customer/user/patron/client. This person approaches the customer service representative or reference librarian with a question, a problem, a need for assistance. The more successful interactions tend to require a positive attitude, willingness and ability to listen and ask helpful questions, and collaboratively arriving at a solution or result. Misunderstandings, miscommunication, and language barriers can ruin the experience for both parties. In both situations, the librarian or representative is focused on providing assistance to the customer.

Sample of the types of questions I’ve received

1. “I need to find resources about what ‘home’ means”

One of the most challenging of my recent experience, I was asked this question on multiple occasions. The concept of home is vague and difficult to describe. How to find words to articulate to databases the concepts of what it means to have a home, what home means to different people, and what environmental and social factors make a place a home? Eventually we came up with terms such as “the meaning of home,” “home is where the heart is,” and “cultural identity.” I researched topics such as immigration and migration. I did a lot of “playing in the [database] sandbox,” which is how I describe my creative approach to answering a research question when I’m not sure where to begin.

2. Helping students locate a book on the shelves

This one, especially during my first two weeks, tested my memory of the Library of Congress classification system. Now that I have answered this question numerous times, my knowledge is up-to-date, and my description of how the system works has never been more concise or articulate.

3. “Where can I find articles on….”

This question made me realize that in some cases, I can only provide students with the searching tools and tips to find the answers on their own. And sometimes, that’s enough. At least, if they remember what I teach them, they can continue to use my information to answer even more questions down the road.

4. Directional questions

As uninspiring as these are, there is nothing like having to answer “Where is the computer lab?” “Where can I print in color?” and “Where can I get my ID card” to teach a new employee specifics about their working environment.


Reference librarianship is fun, intellectual, and challenging. I love providing assistance to students, researching obscure or complex topics (even simple ones), teaching users new searching tricks, and the communication and collaboration at the core of the reference interview. Every single shift, I learn something – about improving my reference interview techniques, about people, and about the subjects I help research.


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