What does a Reference Librarian do?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 01 December 2019
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A reference librarian provides assistance to users of a library who need help locating resources and information. This job requires excellent customer service skills as well as familiarity with research and the ability to answer challenging questions from patrons who may be searching for obscure and unusual things. Reference librarians must hold a master of library science (MLS) degree and may have additional certifications and qualifications, depending on where they work.

The hub of the reference librarian's workplace is the reference desk, an area that members of the public can approach for information and assistance. The reference desk has resources like computers and connections to the catalog along with references the staff uses frequently, like maps of the area, dictionaries, and so forth. People can ask the librarian for help finding information, an orientation of the library to learn how to use the resources, and other assistance.

Many reference librarians teach classes to members of the public, showing them how to use library resources and providing them with some basic research tips and tricks. On college campuses, the librarian may be very active during orientation week, working with students to help them get familiar with the library. Librarians also provide assistance with using technical resources like microfilm machines, copiers, and so forth, and may troubleshoot Internet access in the library and other problems patrons experience.


A reference librarian can also play a role in developing library collections. Librarians need to know the stock of the library well so they can help people more effectively, and they usually identify weak points and holes in the collection as part of their work. They can make recommendations for new acquisitions and will work with the collections manager on determining what kinds of resources would be most useful for library patrons. These can include books, movies, tapes, sheet music, and other acquisitions.

Working as a reference librarian requires excellent communications skills. Patrons may have vague and unfocused requests that the reference librarian must be able to accurately interpret. Librarians usually want to show patrons how to help themselves in addition to providing information, so patrons will feel more confident in the library, and this requires learning about different communication styles to effectively connect with patrons. One useful skill for people in this position is the “reference interview,” where the librarian asks a series of questions to find out what a patron needs and selects the most appropriate and useful resources.


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Post 2

@jennythelib - I wish they did the "roving reference" thing at my library. Our reference librarians do always look really busy. I guess I shouldn't be afraid to interrupt them - helping patrons is their *main* job, right?

Not everyone realizes how much more value you can get from asking a librarian instead of just going out on your own with Google. As just one tiny example, my library has access to Consumer Reports, which you can't get for free online, not to mention a lot of other paid resources. (Sometimes, with the Internet, you get what you pay for!)

I was on the job market last year and my library was a big help with my resume and submitting online job applications, too. I guess with the economy the way it is, that's how they're spending a lot of they're time these days!

Post 1

The reference librarian job description is changing! All the tasks mentioned in the article are still important. But there might be more to it.

For instance, my library has been experimenting with "roving reference." Instead of staying behind the desk all the time and waiting for patrons to come to us, we now sometimes walk around the library and offer our assistance. A lot of people want help, but don't want to "bother" you. (Which is a challenge for the reference desk - how to get one's own work done while at the same look "approachable.")

Digital reference is also becoming a big part of the job, especially in some academic libraries. Some libraries have web pages that allow users to submit reference questions electronically instead of in-person.

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