Reference and Information Service

Reference and Information Service: The library is a service institution. The library services fall into two main categories - information in anticipation and information on demand. Information in anticipation relates to the current awareness / selective dissemination of information service. The information on demand relates to the past information sought by a user and for which there is the provision of reference and information service known as retrospective searching.

The provision of information in anticipation aims to keep the users well informed and up to date in their field of specialization and also in the related subjects. The service in anticipation can be divided into three broad categories - technical services, public services, and public relation and extension services.

Technical services are vital for all other services provided by the library. Any library would find it impossible to provide public service for their patron without the work performed in “the backroom” by technical staff. The Card Catalogue or in a modern library OPAC is the result of the library technical services. Other technical work includes classification, preparation of shelf list, preparation of various other kinds of guides, etc.

Previously, people used to differentiate the reference service from that of information service, but in reality there is no borderline between the two. The two services cannot be differentiated based on the fact whether the librarian is referring the user to the sources of information or is directly providing the information himself. Even, referring the user to the sources of information itself may serve the function of information service for a particular user. The emergence of web has further changed the whole scenario. Now the reference and information service goes side by side and they cannot be differentiated as it was done earlier. If one however likes to differentiate then the information service can be treated as an extended form of reference service. Infact, the information service is a relatively new term for reference service. Characteristically, information service denotes the ultimate existence of the reference work to all kinds of answers to questions which are based on all sources and which requires the service of the library staff. However, the library services can be differentiated based on the user approach into two i.e service on demand and service in anticipation. In case of service on demand, the staff waits for the users to approach and make a request. The user gets the answer to their specific inquiries pin pointedly, exhaustively and expeditiously. In the reference and information service in anticipation, the staff goes to the user and the user waits for the staff / document / information. The information provided is of general type mostly referred to the document rather than providing exact information.

Reference service in the early years of the twentieth century was limited in general to the instruction and guidance.  The implied policy was of minimal assistance and emphasis on the librarian as instructor.  Librarians, however, soon found themselves increasingly drawn into “fact finding” and providing direct information service. The need for librarians to become more expert in diverse fields led eventually to a growing trend towards subject specialization in reference.

The Reference and Information Services Section addresses all aspects of reference works, in all types of libraries, in all regions of the world. Current interests encompass the new electronic environment and the resulting changes in reference work, role of the reference librarian, and the quality of reference services.

1. Definition: According to Ranganathan, reference service is personal service to each reader in helping him to find the document answering his interest at the moment pin pointedly, exhaustively and expeditiously. It is the process of establishing “contact between the right reader and right book at the right time and in the right personal way”.

According to James I Wayer, reference work is “that part of library administration which deals with the assistance given to readers in their use of the resources of the library”. This definition is too narrow because in these days, the reference librarian assists the readers to use resources outside his/her own library.

Samuel Rothstein defines reference service as “the personal assistance given by the libraries to individual readers in pursuit of information”.

According to Hutchins, “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”.

ALA Glossary states, “reference service is that phase of library work which is directly concerned with assistance to readers in securing information and in using the resources of the library in study and research”.

2. Need and Purpose: The demand for reference and information services in libraries grew exponentially with the end of World War II and the tremendous growth in higher education that followed. In general, the need and purpose of reference service arises from the following facts

a) Complex Nature of Library Tools and Techniques: In order to facilitate the use of the library, the librarian provides various tools like classification numbers, library catalogue (OPAC), shelf list, written guides of various kinds, bibliographies, indexing and abstracting of journals / books, etc. But all these tools are based on complex rules and practices and the users are not supposed to be aware of the ways by which they can be operated. So, there need to be a reference librarian in the library who can serve as a sort of canvassing agent for these tools.

b) Increase Volume of Information: A variety of information sources emerged in large numbers. It is so large that it is impossible for the reader to keep track of its variety and its location. So, there is a need of reference service for the selection of the right kind of document at less possible time.

c) Peculiarities of Sources of Information: Each kind of information source follows its own practices in the arrangements of entries, provision of subject headings, preparation of indexes, etc. So, it is not always easy to get the desired information out of some sources of information (indexing and abstracting journals, bibliographies, encyclopedia, etc) without the help of the reference librarian.

d) Lack of Time: Information has a value only if they are received in time and put into practice. But many research teams and others do not have the time required to search for information in their parallel development. It is also not desirable to expect from a highly paid research scientist to spend time in search for the literature in libraries. It is also unprofitable for the parent organization. So, the trend is to seek the help of a reference librarian to get the information in time, for the preparation of bibliographies, indexes, abstracts, and for arranging for translation etc.

e) Personal Psychology: The users may be of shy nature, gentle, aggressive, and meek; they may be less educated or highly educated and so on. They need to be taken care of by a person when they come to a library for the first time. Otherwise, they may feel utterly lost or confused with the result that they may not come again. Even those who come regularly to the library would need occasional personal assistance. All these call for an arrangement for reference and information service on demand.

f) Promote and Support Library Service: A good reference and information service is bound to encourage the use of the library. The satisfied users serve as a friend of the library and can lead to greater library support. After all, the reference service is treated as the hub of all the activities of the library. It may be considered as the ultimate manifestation of the laws of library science.

g) National Economy: Sometimes the questions on a subject or topic are repetitive in nature in the event of some local function. If each answer seekers goes to find the answer on their own, a lot of man – hours will be wasted. So, in this regard reference service helps the national economy by saving the time for the users.

3. Strategies in Establishing a Reference and Information Service: For establishing the reference and information service, or to provide the reference and information service, the librarian needs to go through the following steps:

a) Determining Aims and Objectives of the Library: The kind of reference service being provided would vary from library to library. The service being rendered would depend upon the type of library, its aims and objectives, its collection, the objectives of the reference section and the philosophy of the chief librarian. The librarian should not waste much time in providing answers to the questions that do not come within the scope of the parent organization, and his library.

b) Staffing: Library and information science professionals should be appointed to look after the on-demand reference and information service.

c) Facilities Organization: In addition to an extensive research/reading room, there is also the need of a multimedia room equipped with high-speed computers with Internet and multimedia capabilities, phone / fax machine in the reference section so that the Reference Librarian can instantly provide the answers sought.

d) Building Reference Collection: The maintenance of the print reference collections including dictionaries, directories, and encyclopedia is a must for any kind of reference service. Compiling bibliographies, establishing and maintaining vertical files, preparing displays, bulletin boards, and exhibits also often fall within the scope of the reference staff. Some fugitive materials consisting of newspaper-cuttings, magazine clippings, folders and collection of some similar kinds of materials should also be included in the reference section.

e) Gathering Knowledge of the Subject: The librarian should have a sound knowledge about all the reference collections in his library. He should also know about the search engine, subject directories and so on.

f) Marketing/Visibility:  The library reference services should be marketed extensively to get the attention of the library users.

g) Origin of the Query: Queries to the Reference Librarian can be made by the library user himself physically, by post, through phone calls, email, online chat, and so on. The Reference Librarian should be in a position to answer the queries in a mode suitable for the user. He should be able to provide answer to the fact-finding question on phone / chat instantly.

h) Reference Interview: A user will feel the need for information. He may approach the Information / Reference desk and make a request for information in the form of a specific query. In the first attempt the Reference Librarian should determine the readers’ problem. He should be able to state clearly what the reader wants.

i) Initiating the Search: The Reference Librarian should pick up the keywords to search in bibliographies, indexes, online databases, subject search engines and so on. By using the prior knowledge he/she should be able to decide the order in which each of the various sources available should be consulted and then should follow the possible short-cut method.

j) Solving the Query: The reference librarian finds out and provides the answer to a specific question raised by the library user. The information sought by the enquirer, its quality and level will depend on the query and type of the question. It may take the form of delivering the specific information itself or direct him to appropriate sources of information. The librarian may also get the concerned information translated and provide the translated version of the document. He may provide a self prepared subject bibliography, delivering the result of the literature search and so on. In all cases the reference librarian’s answer should be user-centric.

k) Ethics and the Provision of High Quality Service: The library users have different psychological temperaments, some are meek and inert, some have a superiority complex while some are not articulate enough to express their wants or needs correctly or in a precise manner, and some others may be of limited patience. The reference librarian should follow some basic ethics to deal with every one. He should not share his personal experience about the users with others.

l) Assimilation: In the reference service experience is the most important thing. The librarian should periodically be able to absorb information and learn from his experience so that in near future if same type of problem arises his movement should directly lead him to the path most likely to provide the information he wants.

m) Sharing Experience with Others: A reference librarian should try to share his experience with his colleagues in the reference section. During his work, he would discover certain weakness in the collection, in the library catalogue, in the arrangement of documents, etc. He should make suggestions to his colleagues in various sections of the library to bring about the necessary improvement in the functioning of the library.

            The reference librarian would also be dealing with the indexing and abstracting services prepared by outside organization, bibliographies, national and international document service. He should also share and point out the shortcoming of such tools to respective authorities.

n) Continuing Education of Reference Librarians: The reference librarian should be regularly sent for training. For him training is essential to find the information he needs. Besides, the emergence of the digital information sources and the rapid changes in technologies make it necessary for the librarians to go for training periodically.