The Quiet Revolution: Reference Services in Public Libraries

By Armstrong, Anne | Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services, September 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Quiet Revolution: Reference Services in Public Libraries

Armstrong, Anne, Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services

An exploration, using interviews with Victorian practitioners, of current and emerging issues for reference services in public libraries in the context of the internet, the wide range of resources and formats now provided in them, and changing user expectations


The following OED definitions manifestly, regardless of any general perceptions, no longer reflect the role of a librarian, or what a library is today.

   Librarian: n. somebody who works in or who is in charge of a library.
   Formed from the Latin librarius (see Library) literally `of books' also
   `scribe' somebody concemed with books

   Library n. 1. a collection of books for reading or borrowing. 2. a room or
   building where these are kept 3. a series of books issued in similar

   Reference n. 1. a direction to a book (or a passage in it) where
   information can be found 2. the act of looking up a passage, or of
   referring a person to information- Reference Library or Room, one providing
   books that may be consulted but not taken away

Those definitions may still be reflected in perceptions within society about what a librarian does in the library. In the past, the role of reference librarians was clear by their title. They would refer the user to a specific reference book within the walls of the library to assist in answering a question.

The internet has changed perceptions and expectations. Reference services in public libraries--all libraries--have had to respond quickly as the multilane information freeway has expanded, together with the enthusiasm and expectations of users. The traditional pathways to finding answers to questions have altered course, to the point where the information flow is so vast that the first job of reference librarians is to select, untangle and draw out relevant information into an understandable format.

As McCullagh has stated

   Reference librarians face the challenge of sifting through the myriad of
   information, to provide fast and convenient access to the best available
   resources. By combining them with the library's collections customers can
   have a seamless interface to all available information, regardless of
   format, to assist their learning and research process. (1)

It is against this backdrop that a number of Victorian reference librarians working at the forefront of these changes were interviewed. I wanted to find out how they are responding. What are the issues emerging from the electronic explosion? Is it now time to reassess what the role of a reference librarian is? Are we responding adequately to user expectations, given the increasing focus on developing information literate citizens?

One interviewee, Jill Watson, the Information Services Librarian at Bayside Libraries in Melbourne, observed

   We mightn't be asked as many questions, but we now have evidence of the
   complexity and time spent on these questions. These enquiries must be
   quantified and included in our reference statistics in order to reflect
   such changes.

   We must measure how many online hits we are getting on our webpage and the
   online databases we provide and capture the `virtual' patrons and add these
   enquiries to our statistics.

Charles McClure, director of Information Use Management at Florida State University makes a related point in relation to electronic reference

   As traditional statistics for circulation and inhouse reference decline,
   libraries underreport their electronic activity, because they can't count
   effectively what they do in the networked environment. (2)

This is an important aspect of electronic reference which librarians must quantify on a regular basis to identify from where enquiries are coming, and how the skills and time of librarians are Ring used. Without this data they cannot illustrate what users are searching for, and how they should be responding in terms of collection development.

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The Quiet Revolution: Reference Services in Public Libraries


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