Competency I – Reference

…use service concepts, principles, and techniques to connect individuals or groups with accurate, relevant, and appropriate information


Connecting users with information is the heart of library services. From technical services to circulation, many individual and talented minds help create library spaces that are conducive to users’ finding and understanding information. However, in their service on the front lines – as it were – reference librarians are the conduits that facilitate information access while acting as the public face of the library.

Over the summer, I worked at Mill Valley Library as a (p/t) Library Assistant in the children’s room, which was an incredibly enriching learning experience. I worked the reference desk where I provided reader’s advisory and research help for children, educators, parents and other patrons. At MV, I was fortunate to interact with many self-directed young learners, like E, a 3rd grader researching dog illustrations as models to help her perfect her illustration skills for the book she’s writing, or the 9 year old girl named Z whom I introduced to Grzimek’s Animal Encyclopedia for information about Japanese animals. These experiences have helped solidify my love for providing reference services, and I hope to pursue this career track.

Reference librarians are responsible for myriad services ranging from provision of both face-to-face and digital reference and information services to “website development and maintenance.” (Michelle Simmons, LIBR 210 lecture, April 23, 2012). They are educators whether they provide answers or instruction. As such, they must know how to navigate the reference spectrum; know how to read patron’s needs and practice active listening. Reference librarians help develop and maintain reference collections to meet community needs. They provide outreach to local schools and other institutions by giving book talks, lectures, and otherwise disseminating general library service information. In many libraries, reference librarians create and manage library programming, and occasionally perform children’s story-times.

Chameleon-like, reference librarians appear to have transformative powers as they shift roles to serve users. This may explain why patrons almost never distinguish between library workers on the reference desk; in fact, whether they are reference librarians or library assistants appears to be inconsequential insofar as they are able to meet patron requests. While I recognize the need for librarians to become certified, and also advocate for the vitality and necessity of specializations for library success, I find the identity confusion to also be illustrative of a salient, tacit understanding of the collective goal for all reference workers: to meet patron needs while facilitating healthy relationships with the library.

Creating relaxed, friendly and open spaces for patrons to ask reference questions is vital to performing quality reference service. Effective listening, eye contact and positive attitudes can go a long way toward impacting patrons’ perceptions of the reference desk as a barrier to library services. “Roving reference” is a proactive technique to mitigate patron anxieties about approaching the reference desk by meeting users where they are to provide reference and research assistance and information provision. Staff may consider the more direct approach of “roving reference” as an engaging tactic to help patrons acclimate or assuage “library anxiety” (Elmborg, 2006, pg. 60)

The “reference interview” is a core asset to efficient and effective reference service. It facilitates clear communication between librarians and patrons, and often catalyzes new learning or cognizance of a given subject. It is also an opportunity to offer a quick library literacy session for new library users. Since, along with aforementioned “library anxiety”, many patrons find it difficult to ask for what they want, and experience feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy while seeking information, reference interviews are essential to upholding quality reference services to correctly and concisely ascertain the nature of a patron’s reference request. Moreover, the reference interview necessitates that librarians posit a series of questions that may feel unnerving to an already anxious patron. Dervin & Dewdney (1986) discuss a form of neutral questioning used in the workshop format that may help mitigate the reference librarian’s need to assess along with the patron’s need for privacy. “In the workshops, the distinction is made between the “why” questions that sound judgmental and neutral questions that elicit the “why” but leave the user in control.“ One way this is done is by “reformulating the questions as statements.” (p. 510). This seemingly simplistic aspect of neutral questioning is actually very useful because it creates a framework for patrons to be included in both the question and answer, rather than feel interrogated.

Alternative to face-to-face reference service is digital reference, which enables librarians to serve users remotely via a variety of communication technologies including instant messaging, email, text, and even video conferencing. Digital reference services provide information seekers with nearly 24/7 access to research assistance and resource discovery. Among the glut and muck of the open web, librarians are available to parse information as well as facilitate the research process for many searchers.

As chat reference has gained popularity, librarians have developed a series of “model reference behaviors” and other competencies to sustain quality service.  (Hirko & Ross, 2004). Similar to traditional reference competencies, they involve striking a personal tone, asking “clarifying questions”, explaining steps throughout the search process, “providing [requested] information”, and following up with patrons. Attentiveness to this burgeoning library service is critical to the future of reference.


Libr 210_Observation Analysis

My first piece of evidence to demonstrate my mastery of competency I is a series of observation analyses I conducted for LIBR 210: Reference and Information Services, in which I unobtrusively observed a series of both in-person and virtual reference transactions. In this paper, I discuss two face-to-face observations and describe the library’s reference area as well as any physical barriers that may hinder reference services for patrons. I also compare two virtual reference transactions in which I queried both a local and state reference service about alternate options for a document delivery service. Using the RUSA (2004) guidelines, I examine how reference staff interact with patrons and also discuss the absence or presence of reference interviews in both types of reference transactions. “Approachability,” “manner”, and “tone” all have a significant impact on a patron’s “willingness to return” to the reference desk for assistance. (RUSA, 2004) (Durrance, 1995). This paper demonstrates my competency in analyzing both face-to-face and virtual reference services to determine their usefulness to patrons in light of the RUSA guidelines and professional literature.


My second piece of evidence to demonstrate my mastery of competency I is a pathfinder (research guide) I created for my LIBR 210: Reference and Information Services class using the LibGuides platform. As I discuss in Comp H, it is a beginner’s guide to women poets of the Bay Area, designed to serve researchers, scholars, students, and any other individuals seeking information about instrumental women figures involved in the Bay Area poetry communities as well as their respective artworks and affinities. This research guide demonstrates my competency in creating cloud-based research tools designed to assist users with finding, navigating, and comprehending scholarly and informational poetry resources. To my knowledge, it is also the first LibGuide explicitly designed to highlight Bay Area women poets’ works and affiliations. As such, it aims to give visibility to these highly influential women figures.

With my research guide, I also demonstrate my competency in learning new Web-based tools to connect users with information. The guide comprises and incorporates links from diversified sources to compile a centrally located and accessible resource. Some of these resources include audio recordings, online databases, both public and academic online access catalogs, LibraryThing, online poetry journals, and small presses. At the time of creation, I included a Meebo widget that offered users 24-7 chat and IM reference access. Unfortunately, this widget is no longer active due to the discontinuation of Meebo chat services. However, I plan to activate an alternate chat reference service in the future and will promote the service on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Libr 210_Primary & Secondary Annotations

My third piece of evidence to demonstrate my mastery of competency I is a set of primary and secondary annotations I created for LIBR 210: Reference and Information Services for our class wiki. To annotate a reference source is to seek meaning, or a sound understanding of its potential contributions to the knowledge community. These annotations demonstrate my competency in describing the “purpose and content”, “unique features”, and “organization” of several reference sources with consideration of how patrons will seek and use this information to meet their reference needs thereby facilitating information access. (Michelle Simmons, LIBR 210 lecture, March 6, 2012). I also prove my competency by creating possible reference transaction scenarios wherein patrons would require these sources to meet their research and information needs. In doing so, I developed a finer understanding of these reference sources and their proven ability to serve library users.


This is a pivotal time for traditional reference services, and some proclaim its’ unsustainability due to the advent of the Internet’s great search capabilities. However, I believe an either/or mentality is unsustainable, and that experienced reference librarians recognize that to cull from a variety of information resources promotes valuable reference services to all. Integrating traditional and digital reference services is the key to a successful future. Along with the vitality of the personable reference interaction, be it face-to-face or digital, reference librarians aid resource discovery and promote lifelong learning by facilitating and fostering healthy relationships between users and libraries.


Dervin, D. & Dewdney, P.  (1986).  Neutral questioning: A new approach to the reference interview.  RQ, 25 (4).  506-513.

Durrance, Joan C. (1995), “Factors that influence reference success: What makes questioners willing to return?” The Reference Librarian, 49/50: 243-265.

Elmborg, J. K. (2006). Libraries in the contact zone: On the creation of educational space. Reference User and Services Association Quarterly, 46(1), 56-64.

Hirko, B. and Ross, M.B. (2004), Virtual reference training: The complete guide to providing anytime, anywhere answers, American Library Association, Chicago, IL.

Reference and User Services Association (2004). RUSA Guidelines. Retrieved October 3, 2012 from

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