Essential Qualities of a Reference Librarian

There are five main qualities which are essential to being a good reference librarian. 
1.     The most important quality, which is also the most nebulous, is social in nature.  Reference librarians must have the people skills necessary to provide good customer service.  While in the early part of the century the ideal of this service was someone who could be a “gracious hostess to moral betterment” (Genz, 1998, p. 3), the current model is for librarians to “play the part of dynamic guides, joining users on their journey to knowledge” (Cassell & Hiremath, 2006, p.5).  But whether the librarian is welcoming the patron into the library or accompanying him or her on a journey, the essential style for many reference transactions remains “friendly and conversational” (Cassell & Hiremath, 2006, p.6).  Librarians must assess a patron’s needs and decipher the best path for him or her to take, all while maintaining the patron’s comfort and privacy.  Reference librarians represent the usefulness of the library in their interactions with patrons, and must deliver great service in order to represent the level of quality of the library itself.

2.       Reference Librarians must be knowledgeable in their field; they must have a good understanding of how to find information, how to evaluate the quality of information sources, and how information is organized.  As Green writes, the librarian “sees at once in what department of knowledge the description sought for may be found, and brings to the inquirer authoritative treatises in this department” (1876, p.78).  The reference librarian is in effect the translator between the language of a patron’s query and the language of informational organization.  While this quality has remained necessary over time, methods of organization have not.  Information (and research) is increasingly cross categorized and interdisciplinary.  The comprehensive access available within electronic resources (where every word may be searchable) as well as techniques such as tagging have created a world where information is less strictly defined within subject areas. 

3.   Reference Librarians must be good teachers, “demonstrating how, when, and why to use various reference sources in an integrated way that will capture the user’s attention at the teachable moment” (Cassell & Hiremath, 2006, p.7).  Not only must the librarian know how to teach information literacy, but he or she must exercise good judgment to know when a user should be taught and when a user just needs a quick answer.  This ideal of teaching has remained a constant across time, although it is no longer expressed as the Victorian ideal of helping “lowly people to grow in culture” (Green, 1876, p.79).

4.  Because “technology continues to change reference service” (Cassell & Hiremath, 2006, p.12), librarians must be curious and inquisitive with new tools and resources.  Technology has changed the patron’s expectations for service (with answers available at any time of the day or night via Google) and resource formats.  Librarians must be familiar with new developments because in many cases patrons already are; the ready access to information provided by the internet has democratized information and librarians must keep up in order to retain their status as experts.  Openness to technology is also necessary because “the essential part of reference work is to help users find information to fulfill their information needs by every possible means” (Luo, 2007, p.12), and librarians must be able to provide reference services in the ways that best suit the patron and his or her information need.  While technology has changed over the past century, the necessity for embracing it has not.  Librarians utilized new developments such as the telephone and the early forms of electronic databases, and must continue to explore developing tools such as chat and mobile technology.

5.  The ability to work within a team is also an essential quality for reference librarians.  While librarians have always worked in concert with their colleagues, at the very least within their own libraries, technological developments allow for a wider scope of collaboration.  Libraries can increase available resources, provide longer service hours, and access a broader field of expertise; as Luo puts it “reference collaboration among libraries has been brought to a new level by digital reference” (2007, p.21).

Cassell, K. & Hiremath, U.  (2006).  Reference and information services in the 21st century:
    An Introduction.  New York: Neal-Schuman.

Genz, M. (1998).  Working at the reference desk.  Library Trends, 46, 505-525.

Green, S.S. (1876).  Personal relations between librarians and readers.  Library Journal, 1, 74-81.

Luo, L.  (2007).  Reference evolution under the influence of new technologies.   (No. TR 2007
    03).  University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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