Reorienting Reference

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Judith Logan, Reference Librarian at the University of Toronto.

The job title in my email signature is “Reference Librarian.”  Every time I send a message to a new faculty member, student, or other non-library person, I always worry that they won’t know what that means. There’s good evidence that my worries are well founded. Kupersmith (2012) compiled over 51 library usability studies and found that “reference” was one of the most commonly misunderstood or not understood terms.

There may have been a time when the word “reference” was both intelligible and valuable to most users, but that is not the case now. Reference remains both a physical location and a service point in most libraries, but the landscape of user-support has changed around them. Any veteran reference librarian can tell you that our users no longer need us as they once did. Our declining annual statistics corroborate this.

So what do we do? Bemoan the loss of a valued function within the library and stubbornly assert our continued relevance while doing the old work that may no longer be necessary? Some, like Verdasca (2015), are going this route, but I think we can do better.  The research skills and service values that we honed over decades are still very useful to both our users and our institutions. We just have to deploy them more effectively.

They don’t need us anymore and that’s a good thing

Usually, reference works like this:

  • A library user encounters a problem
  • The user approaches us asking for help with this problem
  • We use our reference interview skills to analyze the problem
  • We help the user fix the problem or suggest alternatives if it is unfixable
  • The user leaves happy (hopefully), so we are happy

Of course, this is a gross simplification of a reference interaction.  I’m using it only to show that the emphasis of reference work is on the user in front of us.  It is a reactive position. We wait for problems to occur and solve them as best we can, considering our sphere of influence and available resources.  Essentially, we wait for our systems to fail.

Our LibQual results tell us that our users value self-directedness. The Information Control section, which includes such value statements as “A library website enabling me to locate information on my own” and “Easy-to-use access tools that allow me to find things on my own”, always has the highest score for desired service level. And this isn’t just at my library. Check out the ARL notebooks for results from each year’s participating libraries.

Taking a reactive position in our reference work doesn’t fit with our users’ desire for self-sufficiency. They don’t want to have to rely on us to get their research done. We are and should be a last resort.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with a little support, especially in the areas that need a higher level of skill.  Any public service librarian can tell you that we can save our users a great deal of time and frustration. But our support should never be necessary more often than it is desired. As Schmidt and Etches (2014) so perfectly put it “if someone has to be taught how to use something, then it’s the thing that is broken, not the user” (p. 5).

Putting ourselves out of a job

The fundamental goal of reference work should be self-destruction. We know they want to be able to do it themselves, so we should be working proactively to make the library system so easy that they don’t need us to navigate it.

Granted, the resources our user communities need are vast, complicated, and expensive. We’re not going to be able to change the landscape of academic publishing and distribution quickly or easily, but there are lots of little opportunities for improving our services and facilitating better research. We should be using our reference service points primarily as a means of discovering those opportunities.

I’ll give you an example from my library.  Our discovery tool, Summon, indexes many kinds of resources, but we market it primarily as an article discovery tool. Since its implementation in Fall 2011, the search results were filtered to articles only, but if a user performed a new search from the search results screen, the articles filter would be lost and book results would appear in the new search.  Only the very keen eyed user would notice the missing filter or the presence of an ISBN under the title.

Ironically, these book results didn’t even direct users to the catalogue.  They went to our article link resolver—which most users interpreted as a dead end since the “article” never appeared.  You can imagine the confusion and frustration we observed in our users.

For years we addressed this in information literacy classes and online learning objects like screencasts and FAQs, but these interventions were designed to fix the user’s behavior, not Summon.

We finally solved the problem by collaborating with our technical services department. They were working on a redesign of the library website, so we suggested some functionality changes along with the look-and-feel update to Summon. Now it keeps the article filters by default, even in a new search.  Users only see catalogue results if they actively remove the articles filter.  This solution has been in place for about a month now and we’re already receiving thank you messages from users about this specific functionality change.

This is just one small example of how we can use our first hand experience with users’ “pain points” to make the system easier for users to navigate on their own. The trick is communicating this experience to the right collaborators at the right time

The broader implications

What does becoming more user-centered and proactive mean for established reference librarians, units, and services?

First of all, we should be thinking about the way we connect with users.  Are we putting our efforts into services that have the most impact for them? The only way to know to is to ask them and be willing to make hard decisions in response to what we hear. We may love our reference desk, for example, but if it’s not valuable to our users, we need to be willing to let it go.

Many libraries are doing this kind of user experience research to inform service design.  At my library, for instance, our research found that our users often feel confused, lost, and frustrated trying to navigate our giant, concrete building, so we’re piloting a distributed service model where student staff members will provide preemptive support throughout the building (Bell 2013). So, rather than waiting for them to find their way to us (if they can), we’ll go to them.

Secondly, we need to be working more closely with our colleagues.  I come from a large institution where metadata activities, technology services, circulation, reference, and collections all operate quite separately.  We don’t work together and share information as closely as we could, but our big win with Summon showed that collaboration can be very fruitful.

Especially, working with user experience (UX) librarians or units can be mutually beneficial if your library is lucky enough to have them. We can identify useful avenues for UX research and contextualize findings for them while they can help us turn our anecdotal observations into hard evidence and ultimately changes that benefit the user.

If you don’t have a user experience librarian or team at your library, you can take on this role. UX isn’t hard. There are lots of resources out there to help you get started:

  • Check out Weave, a new open-access journal about UX in libraries.
  • Sign up for Influx’s newsletter.
  • Follow @UXlibs on Twitter or attend their conference if you can swing it

Finally, we should also think about what we call ourselves.  It may seem trivial, but it’s critical that our users—our raison d’être— understand who we are and what we can do for them. A new name would also help us reposition ourselves in the minds of those who may hold a narrow, outdated, or pejorative view of what reference means: dusty encyclopedias and bespectacled librarians frowning from behind a big wooden desk.

Reference in its previous incarnations has diminished in importance to our users, so it’s time to regroup and refocus. Like all library services, reference is dedicated to facilitating our institution’s research and teaching activities. Instead of accomplishing this mission reactively—by fixing problems (read: user behavior) as they present themselves—we should be accomplishing it proactively—by listening to our users’ frustrations and desires, and reconfiguring our services and resources to address them.

Works cited

Bell, S. J. (2013, August 6). Recent user experience: Greeters – NO / Preemptive Support – YES. [Blog post]. Designing Better Libraries. Retrieved from

Kupersmith, J. (2012). Library terms that users understand. Retrieved from

Schmidt, A., & Etches, A. (2014). Useful, usable, desirable: Applying user experience design to your library. Chicago: ALA Editions.

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

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