The assistance the library staff provides patrons in helping them find information to meet their personal needs is termed reference and information service. This type of service is offered in public libraries of all sizes from the small one-person library having limited resources to the large metropolitan library containing hundreds of thousands of volumes. The average library user has limited search skills and possesses little knowledge of how to find information. The library’s responsibility, therefore, is to help its clientele make effective use of the local collection as well as external resources such as the Internet and TexShare*, databases provided by the Texas State Library & Archives Commission.

It is the obligation of the library staff to provide the best service possible in order to meet the needs of its users. Not only is it a basic obligation of the library to see that its public is well served, but quality reference and information services result in excellent public relations in which the library is held in high regard by its local citizens.

Reference Questions

Questions asked may derive from any element of the community from a small child to a senior citizen, from a person with limited educational background to a professional, from someone who has a serious personal need to the curiosity seeker. Persons in all walks of life need information for daily living such as understanding a health problem or deciding which product to purchase. Students at all levels are heavy users of the reference collection.

The answer to a reference query may be a simple fact, a brief explanation, or a body of material on the topic. The data may come from any source in the collection that can be relied on for accuracy. Reference books are especially useful in providing answers, but all materials in the collection have potential usefulness in the reference setting. Answers frequently come from an external source—another service agency, a local historical society, a city or county office, or from an electronic service such as the Internet or TexShare.

Types of Questions

The three basic types of questions asked are the same for all sizes of libraries: directional, ready reference, and specific-search. Research, a fourth type of question, is generally confined to large libraries designed to assist the user with in depth needs.

Directional questions concern location—“Where is the copy machine?” “Where are the encyclopedias?” “Where are your books on literature?”

Ready reference questions are specific answer queries—“When did Samuel Colt invent the revolver?” “What is the address of the American Heart Association?” “I need a copy of all four verses of the Star Spangled Banner.”

Specific-search questions are more complex and usually involve supplying a collection of information—“Where can I find critical information about Ernest Hemingway for my research paper in English?” “Do you have any information about the problems of adults with dyslexia?” “My child has been determined to have learning differences or LD. Where can I find information about what that means?”

Questions do not always fall neatly into a category. The directional question on the location of encyclopedias may result in the librarian helping the user to locate material on the subject of interest in other types of sources. The student who asks for the address of the American Heart Association also may need information on low fat diets for heart patients. The patron who asks for a specific piece of information may need additional material to fully meet the need.

The Reference Interview

The user’s need cannot be met unless the librarian understands the question. Often the patron fails to clearly state the need. The librarian’s adage—the first question asked is not the real need—is often true. In order to determine the need, the librarian must be skilled at asking questions. This process of question negotiation is termed the “reference interview.” The primary objectives of the reference interview are to determine the real need as well as how much and what kind of data is needed. A patron looking for information on iguanas may want a picture of one, to purchase one, to know how to feed the one just acquired, or to gather enough data for a science class report. In each case, the first question asked probably would be phrased, “Do you have anything on iguanas?”

In addition to learning what kind and how much information the user needs, the librarian often must determine whether basic or more sophisticated information is appropriate. It also may be important to learn what information the patron has already gathered in order to avoid duplication. Knowing when the information is needed is essential if the question is likely to result in a complex search or require that the library borrow material on interlibrary loan.

Open-ended Questions

An important key to conducting a good reference interview is to begin the exchange with open-ended questions, ones that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer. The open-ended question encourages the patron to discuss the need. An example of an open-ended question is, “What would you like to find out about iguanas?” In order to respond, the user will generally provide information that will help the librarian to determine the need.

Other examples of open-ended questions:

  • Where did you hear about ______?
  • What type of information on ______ would you like to find?
  • How much information do you need?
  • When did _______ live? What did ______ do?

Closed Questions

Closed questions, ones that require only a “yes” or “no” or a “this” or “that” (giving the user a choice) answer, provide limited information. Closed questions at the beginning of the interview generally do not result in learning quickly what the patron is seeking. They prematurely restrict the patron’s explanation of the need and can lead the patron away from the real question.

Examples of closed questions:

  • Do you want a picture of an iguana?
  • Are you writing a term paper?
  • Would you rather have a definition of the term or several articles about the topic?

Although closed questions are usually not productive at the beginning of an interview, they are useful at the end to determine whether the question is understood. Example: “Your iguana is not eating so you would like to know what to feed it. Is that what you are looking for?”

Sample Interview

Here is a short exchange that illustrates open and closed questions:

Patron: Have you got anything on Honda Accords?

Librarian: What type of information would you like about Honda Accords?

(open-ended question)

Patron: You know, how they rate. I’m thinking of buying one, but someone told me the Toyota Camry is a better car.

Librarian: Would you like something that compares the two models? (closed question)

Patron: Yes. That would be great.

The reference interview does not always go smoothly. The user may fail to provide the librarian with an essential aspect of the need or provide only generalities rather than specifics. There sometimes are complications because of misspelling or mispronouncing of a name or term, or misquote of a quotation that is sought. Students sometimes do not have a clear understanding of an assignment. Despite these problems, it is essential that the librarian make an effort to learn as much about the need as possible.

Finding the Answer

Once the need has been established, the next step is to find the answer. Answering questions is problem solving. The patron presents a problem, and the librarian, having clarified it through an interview, attempts to find a solution. The librarian should give the patron whatever help is needed in finding the answer. Some patrons are experienced library users and need little more than suggestions about where to look. Most patrons, however, need more extensive help requiring the librarian to become involved in the search.

First, the librarian decides whether to begin the search with in-house material—the reference collection, the circulating collection, a CD-ROM, a film, etc.—or to use the Internet or TexShare. The librarian may know that an answer can be easily found in a known reference source. For example: a question on the history of the Republic of Texas can be found in the Texas Almanac, or a plot summary of The Count of Monte Cristo is likely to be found in a literary handbook. On the other hand, the librarian may know that the Internet is the best place to look for the most recent information on a specific type of cancer, or that critical information on Hemingway’s novel Old Man and the Sea is likely to be found on a database available through TexShare. In many instances, however, the problem may be hard to solve requiring numerous attempts at a solution. The librarian continues the procedure until the answer is found or the search is abandoned.

Not all questions have easy solutions. A difficult search may require a careful analysis, further discussion with the user, or consultation with a colleague. By obtaining further information about the problem, the librarian may learn of a date, proper noun, term, synonym, or other data fragment that will give the search a new direction or simplify the problem. The librarian can also ask other librarians outside the library for assistance by posting the question on a popular Internet discussion list called STUMPERS-L at, that is maintained by students at Dominican University Graduate School of Library Science (The site moved as of June 2002 and is still under construction at time of printing. The STUMPERS archive is an excellent source for checking to see whether the question has been answered previously. A few of the 10 regional library systems in the state offer “reference backup” services to their member libraries. In these instances members of the system staff assist in the search, using the Major Resource Center collection or other sources to find an answer.

Service Guidelines

Three service guidelines are important to note: (1) In the process of helping the public, the librarian must put aside personal opinions and remain unbiased in providing assistance. It is not easy to assist a patron in finding information on a controversial issue with which one does not agree. It is essential, however, that the librarian do so efficiently and without comment. (2) It is inappropriate to express a personal opinion on a topic, even one that is in support of the patron’s viewpoint. A neutral stance is the best policy. (3) It is important to remember that reference questions are confidential and should be kept so.

Reference Sources

Any reliable source may provide an answer to a reference question whether in book or electronic format. With the development of the Internet, librarians have come to look upon the sites as a part of their collections. Despite the usefulness of the Internet, which has been a boon to libraries of all sizes, librarians still rely heavily on materials the library owns, especially the reference collection. Reference books, which are most commonly arranged alphabetically, are designed to make their contents easily accessible. Some are arranged topically with an in-depth index to their contents.

The ALA Glossary of Library and Information Science, edited by Heartsill Young (ALA, 1983. p.188), defines a reference book as “a book designed by the arrangement and treatment of its subject matter to be consulted for definite items of information rather than to be read consecutively.” A book arranged alphabetically, such as a general language dictionary or a general encyclopedia, fits this definition and obviously are intended as reference books. This is not to say that sources other than reference books cannot be used to answer a question. A narrative history of the American Civil War, contained in the circulating collection, could be used to answer a reference question concerning the Battle of Shiloh. It would be easier, however, to locate the information in an alphabetically arranged source on the same topic, located in the reference collection. Should the reference collection not supply the answer to a question, books in the circulating collection may be a logical next step in the search.

Types of Reference Sources

There are a number of different types of reference books in both print and electronic format—indexes and bibliographies, general and subject encyclopedias, general language and subject area dictionaries, dictionaries that focus on a type of word such as slang, biographical and geographical sources, and fact books such as almanacs, yearbooks, directories, handbooks, and manuals. The type of work is determined by the treatment it offers. Publishers sometimes create confusion, however, by calling a subject encyclopedia a dictionary to indicate that it is arranged alphabetically, or a directory an encyclopedia in order to imply that is comprehensive. Encyclopedia of Associations is a directory, but the publisher has used the word “encyclopedia” in its title to emphasize in depth coverage.

Indexes and bibliographies are access tools or bridges to information. Other types of reference books are ends in themselves in that they contain information. Electronic indexes to periodicals, however, may also include full text of some materials indexed.

General encyclopedias are ideal reference tools, since they contain survey articles on thousands of topics, explanatory material, and data on people, places, and historical events.

Subject encyclopedias, which may be in single volumes or in multi-volume sets, focus on an area such as science or music. There are literally thousands of subject encyclopedias available. Many encyclopedias of both types are available on the Internet, through TexShare, or by individual subscription.

Dictionaries analyze words and supply pronunciations, definitions, etymologies, and other data from the language. Special purpose dictionaries treat special categories of words such as slang or synonyms. Subject dictionaries define specialized or technical language for a given field.

Biographical sources provide information on notable persons. Some include only statistical and basic data (e.g., birth and death dates, education, primary accomplishments), while others are more detailed.

Geographical sources include atlases and gazetteers (place name dictionaries) that are supplemented by individual maps. Some atlases are thematic and focus on an area such as historical periods, economic data, or social conditions. Maps and travel information that are available on the Internet have impacted the use of printed maps and atlases, which are still important library holdings.

Fact sources include almanacs, yearbooks, directories, handbooks, and manuals. Each type has a different purpose, but their primary function is to supply factual data in concise format.

It is important not only to know about the different types of reference sources and how to use them, but also to know specific titles the library holds. In order to feel at home in answering reference questions, one must master reference works. When a patron seeks the literacy rate in the United States, the librarian should know that the World Almanac, with its emphasis on statistical data, is likely to supply the answer. When an adult requests a simple explanation for atomic energy, the librarian should know that World Book Encyclopedia, although designed primarily for juveniles, is especially useful for its clear explanations of difficult topics.

Examining Reference Books

A great deal can be learned about the usefulness of a reference book in a relatively short period of time. The points to observe which follow are important when examining a reference book.

The title page introduces the work and provides the title, persons responsible for the book’s production (authors, editors, compilers, etc.), and the name of the publisher. Most reference book titles are highly descriptive of content, e.g., Black’s Law Dictionary, Historical Atlas of Texas, Emily Post’s Etiquette. Although the practice is no longer common, some books have subtitles, which provide additional information about the book’s contents. Authors, compilers, and editors names may not be as familiar, but the name of the publisher may give you confidence in the book’s authority. Publishers such as H.W. Wilson, Facts on File, and Merriam-Webster are highly reputable and can be depended upon to produce quality reference books.

The verso of the title page provides two important kinds of information, the copyright date and the CIP (cataloging in publication). The copyright date helps to determine the work’s currency. Up-to-date information is important in all reference works, but it is all the more significant in areas subject to rapid change such as the sciences and technology. The date is less significant in fields such as literature and history where older material is still useful. The CIP includes the subject headings assigned to the work, which gives additional information about the book’s coverage.

The table of contents gives an overview of the work’s content. Reference books arranged alphabetically do not include tables of contents, while they are generally included in a topical arrangement work such as the World Almanac.

The preface or introductory material is extremely helpful in learning about the usefulness of a reference book and should be carefully read. The material will generally include information about the work’s scope (what it includes and what it excludes), purpose, and the audience for whom it is intended. There also may be information about how to use the work such as explanations of symbols, abbreviations, and the like.

The main body of the work should be scanned in order to determine arrangement, types of entries, usefulness of illustrations, and whether there are bibliographies or suggestions for further study.

The index, if included, is important to the work’s accessibility. Alphabetically arranged works generally are not indexed. One exception to that practice is the general encyclopedia. The indexes to Encyclopedia Americana and World Book, as well as other encyclopedias, are essential in determining whether the set includes information on a topic. Example: There may not be an article in the alphabetical sequence on a particular artist, but information about the person may be included in an article on the art of a specific country or an art movement. The index would direct the user to the information.

The appendix, if included, may contain information worthy of note.

Evaluating Web Sites

Since the advent of the Internet, library staff and the public have increasingly turned to online resources for factual information. Although there is much valid information to be found on the Internet, its open publishing format also makes available massive amounts of erroneous and misleading information. To avoid giving out inaccurate information and to enhance the library’s credibility as a good information resource, it is essential for the information professional to (1) critically evaluate any Web sites used to provide information to the public, especially sites linked to the library’s main Web page, and (2) teach critical evaluation skills to library users whenever possible. This skill is important for any library user to have, but it is a crucial one for K-12 students to learn.

The following five criteria are generally used to evaluate information on the Internet:

Accuracy – To determine the reliability of the information presented, skim through the first few paragraphs to check for typos and misspellings. Next, check to see whether the author of page’s information can be determined, and if any credentials are listed. It is important to remember that there may be both an author (i.e., someone responsible for creating the content) and a Webmaster (an individual or company responsible for the layout and formatting) listed for the Web page. Most reliable sites will include an e-mail address of someone to contact with questions about the page.

If authorship or content responsibility cannot be determined, it is best to evaluate the site using other criteria, such as the accuracy of citations. For example, the biographical dictionary site shows no clear authorship, but the accuracy of the citations can be easily checked against an authoritative print source such as Webster’s New Biographical Dictionary.

Authority – One way to determine the integrity of the information provided online is to note the domain name in the Web page URL; for example, the .edu, .gov, and .com extensions. Generally, information posted by federal or state government entities is considered authoritative and accurate, but care should be taken to note whether the page being viewed is the most current version available. For example, income tax information is available for several calendar years, but the library user may be seeking tax forms for the current year.

Although the .edu extension, indicating an education institution, generally indicates authoritative information, be aware that individuals—including students, faculty, and staff—rather than departments may be responsible for the content of the Web page. Individual authorship in educational Web pages is indicated in the URL as a tilde (~) followed by a name. The URL extension K12 further indicates a primary or secondary educational institution, rather than a university or college setting.

While the .com extension always indicates a for-profit entity, it does not in itself indicate either authority or lack thereof. What is certain is (1) there will either be numerous advertisements on these sites, or (2) only limited information will be provided unless the user subscribes to a fee-based service. It is worthwhile to note that many publishers of authoritative print resources maintain presence on the Web. In most cases, their online products are similarly worthy.

Objectivity – The self-publishing nature of the Internet allows anyone with the technical know-how to voice their opinion on a global scale. Read through the first page of the Web site to determine whether an objective or purpose is stated for the page. Also note whether a particular point of view is being espoused, and whether the information seems one-sided or biased. The detail of information also should be noted, along with the number and variety of links to other information resources on the topic.

Currency – Currency of information was mentioned earlier using IRS tax forms as an example. Check the Web page for a date indicating when the page was last updated. If no date is obvious, scan the text on the first page for date references. Links to other Web pages and information also should be randomly clicked to see if they are still current. A majority of broken links resulting in “page not found” messages clearly indicate that the page has not been kept current. In some cases, other information on the page may still be useful even if some is not current. For example, an English literature professor may have developed a page with extensive links to literary sites for a particular class that is now two years out of date. Although there will likely be a number of broken links on the page, the remaining links still may be accurate and useful.

Coverage – A Web page should be evaluated for the depth and breadth of information it includes. Criteria include the number and variety of the topics covered, any unique information provided that contributes to the body knowledge in that area, and the intrinsic value of the information. For example, is it just another cute Web page about someone’s pet cat or does it include nutrition and grooming information provided by a licensed veterinarian?

The balance of images vs. text also should be considered. The more graphics laden the page is the longer it will take to load, particularly with a dialup or other kind of slow Internet connection. Many pages, particularly those aimed at youth, are exciting to look at but rely on flashy images rather than content for their appeal. Similarly, the page should be evaluated on the need for additional software in order to view or interact with the site. If it is necessary to download RealPlayer, Shockwave or other software in order to view a site, many patrons will find the wait frustrating and move on to another site. The library also must consider carefully the storage requirements for additional software and the time necessary to download it from the Internet.

The issue of free information versus fee-based information also should be considered. A commercial Web site may provide authoritative and accurate information at the “cost” of bombarding users with flashing advertisements and audio commercials. On the other hand, fee-based or subscription services may be prohibitively expensive for the small library with a limited budget.

* TexShare, formerly the Texas State Electronic Library, is a resource sharing program offered by the Texas State Library & Archives Commission, in partnership with eligible academic and public libraries, that provides a wide range of electronic databases to the citizens of Texas, free of charge.

Page last modified: March 2, 2011