Library users can consult the staff at the reference desk for help in finding information. Using a structured reference interview, the librarian works with the library user to clarify their information need and determine what information sources will fill it. The ultimate help provided may consist of reading material in the form of a book or journal article, instruction in the use of specific searchable information resources such as the library's online catalog or subscription bibliographic databases, or simply factual information drawn from the library's reference collection. Typically, a reference desk can be consulted either in person, by telephone, through email or online chat, although a library user should come to the library in person for all but the simplest research questions. A staffed and knowledgeable reference desk is frequently regarded an essential part of a library.
The services that are provided at a reference desk may vary depending on the type of library, its purpose, its resources, and its staff.
Resources that are often kept at a library reference desk may include:
- A small collection of reference books (called ready reference) that are most often used, so that the librarians can reach them quickly, especially when they are on the phone, and so that the books will be returned in time for someone else to use later the same day. The library's full reference collection is usually nearby as well.
- Newspaper clipping files and other rare or restricted items that must be returned to the reference desk.
- A file box of index cards with the answers to frequently asked questions, and/or drawers with folders of pamphlets and photocopies of pages that, from previous experience, were difficult to find. These enable librarians to find such information quickly without leaving the desk -- even faster than they could look it up in a reference book or using the Internet.
- Books and other items that are being held for library users who asked the librarian by phone to set them aside for them to pick up later the same day, or within the next few days.
- Books from the circulating collection that have been set aside for students working on a special assignment, and are temporarily designated to be used only within the library until the project is due.
- Printed lists of items in the library that are not in the catalog, such as school yearbooks, old telephone directories, college course catalogs, and local history sources.
Services that are often available at a library reference desk may include:
- A signup sheet for reserving time to use computers that have Internet access, or word processing software.
- If a desired book has been checked out, one can place the book 'on hold', which prevents the person who has checked it out from renewing it, and the person who placed the 'hold' is notified when the book has been returned. (Some libraries provide this service at the circulation desk)
- Interlibrary loan of books and other material from other branch libraries in the same library system, or from a cooperating library anywhere in the world. (Some libraries provide this service at the circulation desk)
- The opportunity to recommend that the library purchase something for its collection that it doesn't have, which may be needed or of interest to other library users.
The librarian who sits at the reference desk can usually do the following by virtue of their professional training and experience:
- The librarian can look up a brief, factual answer to a specific question.
- The librarian can use the catalog to find out whether the library owns an item with a particular title or author, or that contains a short story, chapter, song, or poem with a particular title, or to compile a list of books by a particular author or on a particular subject.
- The librarian can briefly teach the user how to use the catalog and how to use its advanced features, or recommend the proper subject words or terms that are used in the catalog for the topic the user has in mind.
- The librarian can often take the library user directly to the shelves with books on a certain topic without using the catalog.
- The librarian is familiar with the contents of hundreds of reference books, and can recommend books that might contain the answer to a particular question.
- The librarian can teach the library user to use online databases such as magazine and newspaper articles, and recommend words and search strategies for the topic the user has in mind.
- The librarian can recommend reliable web sites, give advice on searching the Internet for information, and evaluate the reliability of the information on web sites.
- If the library doesn't have information on a given topic, or if the library user wants more information, the librarian can refer the library user to another library or to an organization that can be contacted by phone or mail.
The library staff member that sits at a reference desk is generally required to have a Masters in Library Science. However, if there is a lack of qualified applicants, particularly in rural areas of the country, a person with an Associate Degree, a Certificate in Library Technology, or a Bachelors Degree in Library Science may be performing these duties if they have made up the difference with practical experience while working in a library.
Just as the employees of retail stores know where everything is shelved in their store, librarians are experts in the arrangement of items in their library, and the information in them, as well as how information is organized outside the library. Library users are encouraged not to be shy about asking a reference librarian for help. Even though some librarians may appear busy working on a project, their primary duty when they are at the desk is to help library users find what they are looking for.
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