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Librarian, Ballard Carnegie Library, Seattle, Washington ca. 1907

The reference desk or information desk of a library is a public service counter where professional librarians provide library users with direction to library materials, advice on library collections and services, and expertise on multiple kinds of information from multiple sources.[1]

Purpose and usage

Library users can consult the staff at the reference desk for help in finding information. Using a structured reference interview, the librarian works with the library user to clarify their needs and determine what information sources will fill them.[2][3] To borrow a medical analogy, reference librarians diagnose and treat information deficiencies.

The ultimate help provided may consist of reading material in the form of a book or journal article, instruction in the use of specific searchable information resources such as the library's online catalog or subscription bibliographic/fulltext databases, or simply factual information drawn from the library's print or online reference collection. Information is also provided to patrons through electronic resources.[3] Typically, a reference desk can be consulted either in person, by telephone, through email or online chat, although a library user may be asked to come to the library in person for help with more involved research questions. A staffed and knowledgeable reference desk is an essential part of a library.

The services that are provided at a reference desk may vary depending on the type of library, its purpose, its resources, and its staff.


Reference services did not become commonplace in libraries until the late 1800s. These services initially began in public libraries.[4] At first librarians were hesitant to offer reference services because many libraries did not have a large enough staff to provide the services without other duties being neglected.[4] Beginning in 1883 with the Boston Public Library, libraries began to hire librarians whose primary duty was to provide reference services.[4]

One of the earliest proponents of references services was Samuel Swett Green. He wrote an article titled "Personal Relations Between Librarians and Readers" which had a large impact on the future of reference services.[4] Utor (2008) defined reference services as a direct personal assistance to readers seeking information through direct contact between the reference librarian and the user. Reference desks changed dramatically with the emergence of information technology.


Resources that are often kept at a library reference desk may include:


Services that are often available at a library reference desk include:

The librarian who staffs the reference desk can usually do the following by virtue of their professional training and experience:

Staff qualifications

In the United States, those who staff library reference desks are usually required to have a master's degree in library science[3] from a program accredited by the American Library Association.[5] However, if there is a lack of qualified applicants, particularly in rural areas, a person with an associate degree, a certificate in library technology, or a bachelor's degree in library science may perform these duties. In many academic libraries, student assistants are used as the primary contact, sometimes at an "information desk."

In Sri Lanka, librarians at reference desks typically have master's degrees from the Sri Lankan Library Association's accredited programs.

Electronic reference services

With the development of the Web, digital reference services are beginning to take over some of the roles of the traditional reference desk in a library. There is disagreement over whether or not this development is desirable or inevitable.[6]

See also


  1. ^ Masuchika, Glenn (2013-10-01). "The Reference Desk, Points-of-Sale, and the Building of Loyalty: Applications of Customer Relationship Management Techniques to Library Marketing". The Reference Librarian. 54 (4): 320–331. doi:10.1080/02763877.2013.806236. ISSN 0276-3877.
  2. ^ Miles, Dennis B. (2013). "Shall We Get Rid Of The Reference Desk?". Reference & User Services Quarterly. 52 (4): 320–333. doi:10.5860/rusq.52n4.320.
  3. ^ a b c Crosby, Olivia. "Librarians: Information Experts in the Information Age" (PDF). Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  4. ^ a b c d Deng, Liya (September 2014). "The Evolution of Library Reference Services: From General to Special, 1876-1920s". Libri: International Journal of Libraries & Information Services. 64 (3): 254–262.
  5. ^ "Librarians: How to Become a Librarian". Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  6. ^ Are Reference Desks Dying Out? by Scott Carlson, Chronicle of Higher Education April 20, 2007.