The Roles of Reference Services in the library

Making information available to the library customers is the role of the reference staff and reference services.  The most direct way this is done by librarians and support staff is by delivering personal service in response to requests for information. The three primary forms of this personal service are:
  • Finding information to answer specific questions
  • Helping customers find information for themselves
  • Teaching people how to use library resources and how to do library research

As we know it today personalized reference service is relatively new to libraries.  Before the twentieth century libraries were not much more than storehouses for books.  Librarians were just book collectors, catalogers, and custodians.  Public librarians in the latter part of the nineteenth century started realizing that many users needed assistance in using the library effectively.  Samuel Green, a librarian of the Worcester Free Public Library in Massachusetts, published an article in Library Journal in 1876 that advocated personal assistance and service by librarians to library readers.  He conceived the relationship to be like that of a shopkeeper to a customer, and held that the reader should be welcomed with the cordiality of an innkeeper.  Samuel Green also realized that assistance of this sort would increase the popularity of the library and its support by library users.  The article he wrote became the basis for the development of the reference service.  These services developed gradually.  Librarians began providing guidance in the use of the library and suggesting books to meet the information needs of their customers.  They did this in addition to performing their other duties.  Reference came to be regarded as an important function as this service became popular.  Gradually it became a central responsibility of the staff rather than a marginal duty.  After 1890, the reference function had gained sufficient popularity to become formalized as a distinct department in the larger public libraries.

Acceptance of this new service was slower in university libraries.  It began with the transformation of American higher education in the 1880s.  The foundation of Johns Hopkins University led American colleges at the time to begin adopting the German model of university education, with its increased emphasis on research and its use of books. The use of libraries increased correspondingly, and libraries assisting students and faculty to find the books they needed became a more obvious need. 

In general, reference service in academic libraries followed the lead of public libraries.  Personal assistance first was provided on a part-time and occasional basis.  Increased demand for the services resulted in reference work becoming a specialized function.  It eventually gained the status of a separate department in libraries. 

The rate of advance in the academic libraries was slower than in the public libraries.  Academic libraries did not depend as much on the good will of satisfied users as public libraries did.  Also, the custodial nature of the academic library was more firmly established than in public libraries.  But advances were made, and by 1900 reference service had become a common feature in both public and university libraries.  Reference service in the early years of the twentieth century was limited in general to the instruction and guidance.  The implied policy was of minimal assistance and emphasis on the librarian as instructor.  Librarians however soon found themselves increasingly drawn into “fact finding” and providing direct information service.  The need for librarians to become more expert in diverse fields led eventually to a growing trend towards subject specialization in reference. The specialization and the expansion of reference techniques had the cost of de-emphasizing the instructional function but resulted in a qualitative improvement in reference service. 

The growth in the number of special libraries after World War I radically affected the concept of reference service.  Special libraries minimized guidance in favor of direct provision of information.  These types of libraries are growing rapidly due to their increased importance in providing information to legislators and business people.  Reference work was expanded to supply answers to specific questions and even to anticipate questions and furnish a reporting service on new developments.

Before 1940 this application of advanced reference service was uncommon in public academic libraries.  Scholars and faculty members who might benefit from this level of service were often suspicious about librarians’ qualifications.  Also, libraries did not generally have the resources or the time to support service at this level.   This was a valid reason for busy public libraries not to provide reference service to this extinct.   The case for expanded reference to faculty and scholars in university libraries, however, was strong and, when adopted, led to greater responsibilities for the reference librarian. 

The demand for information services in libraries grew exponentially with the end of World War II and the tremendous growth in higher education that followed.  Two further developments were seen in the 1960s and 1970s that expanded the reference librarian’s ability to provide service, while placing greater demands on the librarian’s professional expertise.  Beginning in the 1970s Bibliographic instruction (later called Library instruction) became an important part of reference responsibility once again. 

The beginnings of a technological revolution in reference service were also apparent in the 1960s.  Computerized reference services began with bibliographic databases that contained references to periodicals, books, and other documents.  Services then expanded to include online catalogs, CD-ROM sources, networking of libraries and library systems, full text retrieval, and the Internet.  The librarian’s ability to provide diverse and complex information services have been expanded by such innovations.  Currently reference departments in public, academic, and school libraries attempt to offer at least moderate levels of service in all three areas of reference service.  Those being finding information, helping others to find information, and teaching use of the library.  Departmental, professional school, and research institute libraries now tend to offer reference service of a quality and depth that approaches that of a special library. 


Introduction to Library Public Services, Sixth Ed., By G. Edward Evans, Anthony J. Amodeo, and Thomas L. Carter.
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