Reference Work

The reference process

Reference work is an ongoing process. You can think of reference work as assisting people in filling gaps in their knowledge and solving problems. The "gap" represents the real information need. Patrons may have trouble expressing the real information need, or may be reluctant to do so, and may ask a question that they think will help fill the gap. However, the answer to their question as first stated may fill only a part of the gap, and not meet the entire need. You need to discover the underlying need so you can help the patrons completely fill their information gap.

Suppose a man comes into a public library asking for recipes for tomato sauce. It would be relatively easy to provide him with recipes. Would we then meet his information need? Suppose this man had just harvested his garden tomatoes and is overwhelmed by the amount he collected. His "information gap" is what to do with all those tomatoes! While he sees his problem as being solved by recipes for tomato sauce, if you discover this "information gap," you may be able to really help him by providing him with ideas of other things he might do with the tomatoes -- drying, freezing or canning them; making ketchup or salsa; giving them to food shelters, or composting them. You would have done a much better job of really meeting the information need that brought him to the library, even if he didn't clearly express his need in his opening question to you.

The library's responsibility is to meet information needs -- not to simply answer initial questions.

The reference process includes the following:

  1. Encouraging the patron to contact the library when there is an information need.

  2. Finding out what the real information need is.

  3. Finding the information that will meet the need.

  4. Making sure the patron's need really has been met.

Go to The information needs in our communities.

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This page was last updated April 22, 2003.