Have a Question? Ask a Librarian!

All types of libraries – community, academic, private, or other – usually have a reference desk. The reference desk of a library is a public service counter where people can ask questions. Library users are encouraged not to be shy about asking a reference librarian for help. Even though most librarians find ways to stay busy when not serving a patron, their primary duty when they are at the desk is to assist library users. Reference librarians are experts in accessing multiple kinds of information from multiple sources, and they can answer anything and everything from quick questions to more involved research questions. Librarians are also skilled in assessing the nature of the inquiry, so they know what depth and breadth of information is needed.

Typically, a reference desk can be consulted either in person, by telephone, through email, instant messaging, text messaging, or online chat. The newer virtual reference services are taking over some of the roles of the traditional reference desk in a library. This means the remote, computer-based delivery of reference information provided by librarians to users who cannot access or do not want face-to-face communication. These digital reference services expand the concept of reference work from the physical reference desk to a “virtual” reference desk offering reference assistance whenever and wherever you need it – whether at home, work, or a variety of other locations. Many libraries provide virtual reference services through their individual library websites using local library staff as an extension of a library’s existing reference desk. Some libraries participate in regional or statewide collaborative virtual reference programs. The American Library Association is considering how to implement a national reference service.

Studies show that hardly anyone starts their search for information on a library web page; most people begin their search in an online search engine. However, finding an answer to a complex question might be beyond the limits of a Google search – even for digital natives. With over 100 million sites on the Internet, searching on Google and Yahoo can return millions of websites filled with information that’s not quite what you were looking for. And many of those sites have questionable authority. Librarians are proficient at sorting through a plethora of information and finding what you need from a credible source. These trained information professionals can guide you to the answers in minutes rather than wasting hours navigating hundreds of unhelpful and irrelevant websites. They can evaluate resources and separate the wheat from the chaff – and they won’t charge you a dime!

Despite the convenience of virtual reference desks, certain types of questions are better directed elsewhere. Elementary, high school, and college students are encouraged to visit their school or academic library for assistance in finding answers for their classroom and homework assignments. In most cases, the information needed to complete these assignments is readily available on campus. (The librarian can’t do your assignment for you or give you the answer, but can help you get started and show you where to look.) Most local public libraries will also have books, magazines, online databases, and other resources to assist students with their schoolwork. The local library can also provide printed books, periodicals, pamphlets, and other useful materials including CDs and DVDs.

Here are a variety of services that reference librarians CAN provide, as listed on Wikipedia:

  • · The librarian can provide direction to library materials, advice on library collections and services, and explain how information is organized in the library.
  • · The librarian can look up a brief, factual answer to a specific question.
  • · The librarian can use the catalogue to find out whether the library owns an item with a particular title or author, or that contains a short story, chapter, song, or poem with a particular title, or to compile a list of books by a particular author or on a particular subject.
  • · The librarian can teach the patron how to use the catalogue and how to use its advanced features, or recommend the proper subject words or terms that are used in the catalogue for the topic the user has in mind.
  • · The librarian can often take the library user directly to the shelves with books on a certain topic without using the catalogue.
  • · The librarian is familiar with the contents of hundreds of reference books, and can recommend books that might contain the answer to a particular question.
  • · The librarian can teach the library user to use online databases to find magazine and newspaper articles, and recommend words and search strategies for the topic the user has in mind.
  • · The librarian can recommend reliable websites, give advice on searching the Internet for information, and evaluate the reliability of the information on websites.
  • · If the library doesn’t have information on a given topic, or if the library user wants more information, the librarian can refer the library user to another library or to an organization that can be contacted by phone or mail.

Here is a list of services that reference librarians generally CANNOT provide:

  • · Answers for contests, puzzles or games
  • · Completion of student or work assignments
  • · Legal advice, interpretation, or analysis
  • · Medical advice, interpretation, or analysis
  • · Compilation of detailed bibliographies
  • · Research in heraldry or family history
  • · Prices for old books
  • · Prices of old stock certificates
  • · Translations
  • · Extensive research

Virtual Reference Desks

Ask an IPL Librarian – The Internet Public Library’s reference site is staffed by trained professional librarian volunteers and graduate students in library science programs. Since IPL is not part of a physical library, they focus on finding authoritative, free sources that you can access online. They cannot send copies of materials such as articles or book chapters, but may refer you to those materials and recommend you visit a local library to use them.

Ask an IPL Librarian for Kids – The Internet Public Library’s Question Form for Kids (under 13 years of age).

Ask a Librarian (Library of Congress) – The primary mission of the Library of Congress is to serve Members of Congress and the needs of the government, followed by other libraries and members of the public. The Library’s staff will respond to reference and information requests in accordance with this mission, especially if the query requires resources unique to the Library of Congress. Correspondents are encouraged to use local and online resources first. For those seeking assistance from the Library of Congress, the staff will respond to their reference and information needs to the extent possible. Because the Library participates in a global network of librarians, your question may be submitted to this global network for a reply.

Ask the Librarian – Do you have a question you want to ask a real, live librarian? The staff at the in-house library of the American Library Association is ready to help. Although the primary mission of the ALA Library is to assist ALA staff with research and information to support their programs and serve ALA members, the Library’s staff will respond to reference and information requests from the general public in accordance with its mission and collection scope.

Wikipedia Reference Desk – Wikipedia has its own reference desk, where anyone can post a question. Users leave questions on the reference desk and Wikipedia volunteers work to help you find the information you need – using Wikipedia articles of course, but they do reference outside sources too.

Homeschool Librarian– Can’t find what you are looking for? Ask the helpful home- school librarian! E-mailand I will try to find it for you. 🙂

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