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  • Academic Reference:Playing to Our Strengths
  • Joseph Janes (bio)

Readers in popular libraries need a great deal of assistance. ...This is particularly needed by persons unused to handling books or conducting investigations.1

Reference work includes the direct, personal aid within a library to persons in search of information for whatever purpose, and also various library activities especially aimed at making information as easily available as possible.2

These two quotes, from two of the seminal forces in reference librarianship, encapsulate much of what is promising and troubling about the world of reference. The second was written at the end of the Second World War; the first was from over a century and a quarter ago. And yet, each in its own idiomatic way says things about reference work that we could easily say today: people do not know how to find stuff; therefore we help them in lots of ways. To be sure, many of those ways have changed, as have the people, the stuff, and us—but perhaps as many aspects of this world remain unchanged.

And while there is mention in older literature of the fast pace of contemporary life to explain, for example, the motivation for telephone reference (such as this from Florence M. Gifford in 1943: "There are those to whom in these days of speed and lack of leisure, telephone service seems a legitimate demand from their taxpayers."3 ), it is undeniable that the current rate of change in all important facets of reference work is unprecedented and accelerating.

So this generation of reference librarians faces a unique challenge: how to re-conceptualize and retool a profession, with roots both deep and purposeful, to carry out functions both familiar and new in ways that they find satisfying and their clienteles find valuable.

What We Do

It is worth beginning by surveying the landscape of what reference librarians do uniquely well. First, and perhaps foremost, we have a service orientation. Most people decide they [End Page 533] want to be librarians because they want to help people, and that comes through in the quotes above and the work of reference to this very day. Within that, librarians excel at determining information needs and understanding their context. We know only too well that many people have difficulty articulating or even understanding their own information needs, and we can assist them in the fundamental task of resolving those needs.

Once the needs are understood, librarians employ multiple modes of searching to fulfill those needs. Rather than sticking with one tactic or resource, we are able to try many different approaches, often combining them to develop a fuller search strategy. Reference librarians use their understanding of resources to evaluate potentially useful ones in order to find those of highest quality and suitability in a given setting. Over years of experience and training, we build up a good instinct of when to stop the search. This is an underappreciated skill, yet having that sense that there is nothing new or more to be found (or nothing at all) or that the search is becoming circular or counterproductive can be an important tool. We are able to help people both as a search is going on and beyond through education about the process—helping them not only to understand what the results are but also how they might be able to do more themselves later.

Finally, reference librarians have traditionally incorporated tool making in their work. This may seem somewhat different from the rest of what we do, but one need only consider the work of William Frederick Poole and his Index, H. W. Wilson and the Reader's Guide, and others' works to realize that this has been important in our history, and it continues to be essential in the Web-based environment.

That is an impressive inventory of skills and experience, and one of which all reference librarians can be justly proud. It seems reasonable now to turn to the clientele of reference services to examine their needs.

What They Need

Academic library users have perhaps the fullest array of questions, information needs, and inquiries. They require support in research, teaching, and learning activities effectively encompassing, potentially, the...


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