Reference Work

What is a reference transaction?

Reference work encompasses many different variations of information service. Sometimes we call this work research, or information and referral. Or we may provide readers’ advisory services. All of these types of service are generally thought of as reference work, and similar basic skills are necessary to be successful in any reference service environment.

The definition of a reference transaction was developed over a multi-year period in the mid-1970's when reference transactions were first placed on national statistics forms. Shortened versions have appeared since, but official definition is as follows.

A REFERENCE TRANSACTION is an information contact that involves the use, recommendation, interpretation, or instruction in the use of one or more information sources, or knowledge of such sources by a library staff member. Information resources include:

  1. print and non-print materials;
  2. machine-readable data bases (including computer assisted instruction);
  3. library bibliographic records, excluding circulation records;
  4. other libraries and institutions;
  5. persons both inside and outside the library.

A question answered through utilization of information gained from previous consultation of such sources is considered a reference transaction even if the source in not consulted again.

Other information contacts in the library are called directional transactions.

A DIRECTIONAL TRANSACTION is an information contact which facilitates the use of the library in which the contact occurs, and its environs, and which may involve the use of sources describing that library such as schedules, floor plans, handbooks, and policy statements. Examples of directional transactions are: (1) directions for locating facilities such as rest rooms, carrels, and telephones; (2) directions for locating library staff; (3) directions for locating materials for which the user has a call number; (4) supplying materials such as paper and pencils; (5) assisting users with the operation of machines.

A simpler definition of a "reference transaction" is from the California State Library and was adapted from the ALA GLOSSARY:
A reference transaction is an information transfer that involves the use, recommendation, interpretation, or instruction in the use of information sources, or knowledge of such sources... (From: PROPOSED FRAMEWORK FOR PUBLIC LIBRARY REFERENCE SERVICES. California State Library. April 20, 1988)

All library staff should be able to distinguish and contrast a reference transaction from a directional transaction in order to keep better statistics on library activity. Statistical measures are important as indicators of service to your community. And while statistics alone do not measure the activity in your library or its importance, statistical measures can help in evaluating current services and may impact planning for new services.


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This page was last updated April 21, 2003.