Significantly Different? Reference Services Competencies in Public and Academic Libraries

By Saunders, Laura; Jordan, Mary | Reference & User Services Quarterly, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Significantly Different? Reference Services Competencies in Public and Academic Libraries


Saunders, Laura, Jordan, Mary, Reference & User Services Quarterly


There is a widely held belief in the library profession that public and academic libraries are substantially different from one another. Indeed at least superficially, the two types of libraries do seem to be more different than alike. Academic library collections traditionally focus on supporting the curricular and research needs of the students and faculty who make up their patron base, with fewer resources going to the leisure and entertainment materials that usually make up a substantial portion of public library collections. The public library patron base is inherently more diverse, with public libraries offering collections, programs, and services for patrons from infants to seniors and of many different ethnic, educational, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds from affluent to homeless. Academic libraries also have diverse patrons, but the bulk of the community is made up of patrons in their late teens and older, all of whom have at least a high school diploma and a generally good grasp of English, making the population somewhat more homogenous.

These differences in focus and collection suggest that reference librarians will need a different set of skills and competencies in each setting. Accordingly, library students are often encouraged to choose a career path and plan a curriculum that focuses on one setting, and professional librarians may encounter resistance when they try to move from one setting after several years of experience in the other.

But is the work of a reference librarian in a public library really that different from the same job in an academic library? Despite the popularity of this notion, there is little evidence to support this idea. Virtually no research has been done to compare reference services, and the skills and competencies required to perform those services, in public and academic libraries. This study addresses the gap in the literature by providing results from a nation-wide survey of reference librarians, from both academic and public libraries, who were asked about competencies most important and relevant to their job. Public and academic reference librarians were surveyed separately, with nearly identical surveys, about their views on the work they do. The results of these surveys provide insight into aspects of the job that are similar or different depending on the work setting and the skills and competencies important in each type of library. These data will be of interest to professional librarians who are considering a change in setting and to hiring managers interviewing such candidates, as well as to library students who are in the process of planning their program and choosing a career path. The ideas shared here could also inform revisions or changes to reference courses and related areas of the library science curriculum and as such should be of interest to library science faculty.

LITERATURE REVIEW

A number of resources describe competencies for reference librarians, but very little literature exists comparing job descriptions or expectations between academic and public libraries. As a result, this literature review will look at current overviews of competencies for reference librarians across the literature. One of the most universal set of standards is published by the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) of the American Library Association. RUSA offers a set of professional competencies for reference librarians and a set of guidelines for behavioral performance, both of which detail qualities and competencies expected of reference librarians to perform their jobs effectively. According to these behavioral guidelines, librarians should be approachable, show interest in their patrons without judging them or their information requests, be able to use information sources effectively, and communicate well with their patrons. (1) The professional competencies further elaborate on the qualifications of reference librarians and include accessibility to the patron, knowledge of sources, ability to collaborate, ability to engage in marketing and outreach, and the ability to assess and evaluate the service. …

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