How do I Become a Reference Librarian?

Alan Rankin

To become a reference librarian, you must first complete the normal course of education for general library work. This will include an associate’s or master’s degree in library science, though educational requirements vary among libraries or library districts. This typically involves two to six years of study or more, sometimes including specialized training and licensing. You must be familiar with the tasks involved, including the reference interview, a technique specific to reference departments. Completing these requirements will put you well along the path to become a reference librarian.

In most libraries, old fashioned card catalogs have been replaced with computer systems.
In most libraries, old fashioned card catalogs have been replaced with computer systems.

Anyone who wants to become a reference librarian should start with a general knowledge of how modern libraries work. This can be accomplished even before undertaking a course of study in library science. Spend time in libraries and familiarize yourself with how reference materials are arranged, indexed, and accessed. The American Library Association and similar organizations in other countries can offer resources and information. If you are a student, you might assist in the school library or seek employment as a library page to get a feel for the inner workings of the library.

Encyclopedias, a type of reference book.
Encyclopedias, a type of reference book.

Librarians must complete specialized training in information management. Smaller libraries may only require an associate’s degree, which can often be completed in two years. To become a reference librarian, however, you may need to complete a graduate program in library science. This can only be undertaken after completing a bachelor’s degree, sometimes in a related field such as law, English, or social science. An advanced degree may also be useful if you desire eventual advancement to an administrative position.

Reference librarians in a law or business library usually study those areas in addition to library science.
Reference librarians in a law or business library usually study those areas in addition to library science.

Some libraries will also require licensing to become a reference librarian. For example, school and university libraries often require a teacher certification. Some states and cities may require a license or certificate to be eligible for employment. A reference librarian in a law or business library will also need detailed knowledge of these topics. Familiarity with computer information retrieval is also a must.

The reference librarian must be practiced in the reference interview technique. This is a series of questions librarians use to understand and correctly process a request for information. Some library users are unfamiliar with the library environment and feel uncomfortable or ignorant when asking for help. The purpose of the reference interview is to clarify the information request and direct the user to the requested information as precisely as possible. This involves people skills and a talent for communication as well as familiarity with the available reference materials.

Reference librarians begin their studies by learning how modern libraries function.
Reference librarians begin their studies by learning how modern libraries function.

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