Week 3: Reference

What’s happening in Week 3

Twitter chat

When Monday 7 August, 6pm – 7pm
Topic Reference
Hashtag #ifn614refchat
Twitter chat champions Sharee @sharee_cordes
Guest tweeters Tonight we have an in-house expert, Clare @thorpe_clare
  1. When was the last time you used a reference service or product? What did you use it for?
  2. How important are reference services and products to you as a library user?
  3. Is the word ‘reference’ out of date? Would you have known the word pre library school?
  4. Subject guides: do you know what they are? Did you know pre library school? Are they useful?
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Upcoming due dates

This week

Type What When Where
Assessment Week 3 Reflection Sunday 13 August, 11.59pm Scroll down to the bottom of this page for the prompt and post to your blog

Next week

Nothing due next week!

Learning materials: Reference

Definitions and background

This week, our topic is ‘reference’. Let’s set the scene with some definitions and background.

The Reference and User Services Association, which is a division of the American Library Association, provides the following definitions:

Reference Transactions are information consultations in which library staff recommend, interpret, evaluate, and/or use information resources to help others to meet particular information needs. Reference transactions do not include formal instruction or exchanges that provide assistance with locations, schedules, equipment, supplies, or policy statements.

Reference Work includes reference transactions and other activities that involve the creation, management, and assessment of information or research resources, tools, and services.

(The following bullets clarify what is meant by terms within the Reference Work definition.)

  • Creation and management of information resources includes the development and maintenance of research collections, research guides, catalogs, databases, web sites, search engines, etc., that patrons can use independently, in-house or remotely, to satisfy their information needs.
  • Assessment activities include the measurement and evaluation of reference work, resources, and services.

A personal reflection on the changing nature of reference work

When I studied librarianship, we had a whole unit on reference service provision, covering reference interviews, references collection management, ready reference tools, searching, and reference service design, delivery and evaluation. My first job at QUT Library was a position that had the title Reference Librarian. Most of my time was spent staffing the reference desk at Gardens Point or the virtual (chat) reference service (at that stage only available a few hours a day), plus I spent some time answering email enquiries too. The other big part of my role was assisting the liaison librarians that worked with the faculty of business in ordering books. On my first day in the library, I was sent to the print reference collection with the instruction that I was to get familiar with it.

I left QUT for the National Library, where I completed nine months of rotations through the library on the graduate program. My favourite placement was in the reference service area, where I felt at home because I had an affinity for working with customers, I had experience working with a system that was being implemented to manage virtual reference, and I made a meaningful contribution to work in the area (which is often not the case on a graduate program, where the aim is to get familiar with the business of the organisation rather than to get work done). When I finished the graduate program, I ended up cataloguing serials, and I got myself back to reference services as quickly as I could! As a reference librarian, I spent my time answering email enquiries from people all around the country and the world, working on subject guides, staffing the reference desks in three of the library’s reading rooms, staffing the virtual reference service AskNow, and contributing to the administration of AskNow. Eventually, I ended up looking after the reader education program at the library and running the first collaborative instant messaging (IM) reference service across the national libraries of Australia and New Zealand and all of the Australian state libraries. (You can read about the AskNow IM trial in this article in Australian Library Journal.) I loved my job as a reference librarian and both I and my boss wondered how I would fare moving to a back of house, specialist role when I left the National Library.

On revisiting the literature related to reference services as I was selecting readings for this week, I encountered words like evolutionrethinking, and reinventing absolutely everywhere. Revisiting the literature confirmed what I knew from experience and observation: reference work has changed significantly since I was a reference librarian.

Reference then and now

This week, I want you to get familiar with what ‘reference’ means now, and what it meant in the past.

Why am I getting you to think about the past? My personal view is that we are hanging on to remnants of the way things used to be when it’s time we let those go.

I’ll give you one example that’s a particular soap box of mine: subject guides. Subject guides are detailed guides to what’s in the collection on a given subject. Many libraries still produce them, and it’s my opinion that most of the libraries that still create subject guides shouldn’t be producing them at all. I’m going to leave you to draw your own conclusions on this subject as you read and discuss this week.

The term ‘reference’ is intrinsically linked to the idea of a reference collection and I wonder if continuing to use this term ties us to old models and old ways of thinking.

To help you understand where the term has come from, it’s important to consider what reference used to be and what it is today.

Things to read and watch

learning-materials-iconVerma, H. (2012). Reaching the Wikipedia generation: reference roundtable tackles trends and thorny issues. Library Journal, (April 2012).

Barner, K. (2011). The library is a growing organism: Ranganathan’s fifth law of library science and the academic library in the digital era. Library Philosophy and Practice, (September 2011), 1-9.

Saunders, L. (2012). The reality of reference: responsibilities and competencies for current reference librarians. Public Library Services, 8(2), 114-135.

Verdesca, A. (2015). What’s in a word: coming to terms with reference. The Reference Librarian, 56(1), 67-72. *

* There’s a part two to this article too. It’s very interesting, but I don’t want to overload you with reading, so it’s an optional read.

Blog post: Critical reflection activity

assessment-iconWeekly learning activity

This week, you’ll be writing your first blog post about one of the types of programs, products and services we’re looking at this semester. Your task this week is to write about reference.

Sub topics or related concepts you might like to deal with in your activities

  • Subject guides
  • Virtual reference
  • Social media reference services
  • Mobile devices and impact on reference
  • Demise of reference work
  • Relationship between information literacy instruction and reference work
  • Reference in particular library or GLAM types

This isn’t an exhaustive list. Rather, it’s intended to give you some ideas for where you might start.

Types of posts

You can write about whatever you want related to the topic of the week.


  • One of your activities must be a program review.
  • One of your activities must be a service review.

For your other posts, you can choose a type of activity from the list below, or you can write a critical reflection on a topic off your choosing:

  • argue a point
  • program review
  • service review
  • issues-based reflection
  • trends reflection.

For a description of the different types of posts you could write, check out the Assignment 1 page.


  • Anitra

    Just started reading this and in the Wikipedia Generation article coming to grips with the acronyms, just learnt PDA is Patron Driven Acquisition-
    which seems to have pros & cons. ALIA had goodarticle which was very postiveeticleshttps://www.alia.org.au/sites/default/files/publishing/Incite%20November%3ADecember%202013_EEI.pdf

  • Chloe Delaney

    I actually found these wikipedia perspectives really interesting. I was only in grade 12 six years ago, and wikipedia was a GIANT no- no. You basically failed your assignment if you referenced it. To read that it is a potential reference source now is interesting to me, as programs and technologies do change over time, and if libraries and other reference material can be found through links on wikipedia than it kind of becomes an alright thing. But then, how reliable is the information if you can still edit content in there? Interesting!

    • Kate

      It’s tricky… A long, long time ago, I went to an info session on Wikipedia at the National Library. This was way back when Wikipedia was just becoming a big deal. One of the presenters deliberately made a typo in an entry right before the session started. 15 minutes later when he went to show us how easy it was to edit by fixing his deliberate typo, someone had already fixed it. People are pretty vigilant about cultivating and caring for the entries they value. That’s not to say it’s all good stuff. There was an interesting study recently comparing bias in Britannica and Wikipedia, and back in 2005, Nature did a study that found Britannica had more errors than Wikipedia: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v438/n7070/full/438900a.html

      I think the real crux of this for me is that if we as information professionals care about the quality of articles on Wikipedia, then perhaps we should get in there and contribute and help create quality content.

      PS. Most lecturers would still be pretty concerned to see Wikipedia in your reference list!

  • Chloe Delaney

    I would personally not use wikipedia in my reference list! But I never really saw the value of it until I read these papers, which I found interesting.

  • Rebecca Mutch

    Hi Kate, Hi Clare, I’m getting “404 not found” messages when I click on the links for Saunders and Verdesca (parts 1 & 2). Has anyone else reported the same problem? cheers, Rebecca

  • Rebecca Mutch

    Hi again Kate, sorry about this, but I’m still not able to access the text by Saunders. (I have the Verdesca readings now, thank you.) Maybe it’s me? 🙁 cheers, Rebecca

    • Kate

      Did you try searching for it using Quick Find on the library’s home page? Just paste the article title in.

      I’ve updated the link now. Apologies, Taylor and Francis updated their link structure and I didn’t realise.

        • Kate

          All good! Hope I didn’t sound like a cranky pants! Quick Find is your friend though, and it’s really good to get into the habit of looking for the information yourself, because you need to be a pro searcher! (Also, it’s good for me to get into the habit of checking links!)

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