Who is responsible for staffing the reference desk (professional or paraprofessional)?
The Library of Congress has 23 different readings rooms, all in different divisions. Each Division chief is in charge of hiring. In the
main reading room of the Humanities and Social Sciences division, two Section Heads are responsible for scheduling and supervision. The HSS Chief has overall responsibility for the Main reading room, Local History and Genealogy Reading Room and the Microforms Room. The first two are typically staffed by librarians while technicians staff the microform reading room.
What is the level of training required?
We’re on a GS schedule. Reference librarians go through GS 9 to GS 12.
GS 9 is entry level. The Federal Government says that to work as a
Reference Librarian you’re required to have an MLS or ‘equivalent’
without always specifying what that is. It’s not always that a
Reference Librarian with an MLS is hired; some are hired with subject
What are the type and geographic reach of users seen at the reference
desk (e.g., students, parents, etc.) ?
It’s pretty much everyone in the DC area. We do get a lot of foreign
scholars as well. We’re heavily patronized by grad students,
professional writers, and policy professionals.
After Oklahoma City and 911 we have installed X-Ray Machines and metal
detectors at the entrances. In addition to being screened, people also
have to go through a registration process, which limits the ìwalk-inî
What are the types of questions asked by users?
We get a large number of academics who are doing dissertation research
and looking for support on their research as well as many Masters
students coming to us for help with their academic papers and theses.
I want to underscore that the most important thing a user should do is
to ask the librarians for help. The people who just work on their own
miss most of what we have without realizing it. The reference
librarians will have a much better handle on what resources users
really needóonce we find out what their projects are– and can best aid
them in getting the right materials.
Last week, for instance, I had a professor who was looking for 3 years
for data on tax payers in Illinois in the 1820s. I was able find the
exact government reports containing the data he needed. He couldn’t
have found this on his ownóin fact, he hadn’t found it on his own,
despite years of looking for it.
Tell me the ways in which services are provided at your library (e.g.,
in-person, email, telephone, etc.).
Our services are largely provided in person. We don’t have telephone
reference unless it’s something that can be answered immediately. For
instance if we receive questions about how much a book is worth we can
direct them to Bookfinder.com, etc.
We do a lot of classes. Many universities bring in classes and we talk
to them, giving them instruction on research and reference. Research
orientation classes last about 1.5 -2 hours.
When I’m working, I spend half of my time on the reference desk,
answering email questions, or doing collection development.
All librarians are recommending officers for collection development,
which is an ongoing process for us. Most U.S. publications come in
automatically through copyright deposits, but there’s a lot that
doesn’t. A lot of what we have to do is to keep a watch on our
literature to look for gaps. If we haven’t received a book we should,
we submit requests to acquire it.
With some publishers, it’s like pulling teeth to get their publications
and some of the smaller publication houses don’t seem to realize
they’re supposed to send in copies of their works.
The law that says two copies have to be sent in to us, though, does not
say that we have to keep it. We do make a selectionówe don’t save
everything that comes in.
Please talk about the levels of service provided (e.g., complete
answers, pointers to resources only, time restrictions, etc.)
We generally have the time we need. We’re not like NYPL where we’re
serving 8 million people. The population of the Washington DC area is
much smaller than that. Our physical location is on capital hill.
People come here because they have to. We don’t have a huge volume of
walk-ins like other metropolitan libraries.
We can’t always provide all the information people want through our
email service. Many of the resources we have just are not available on
the internet and others have site license restrictions. The only way to
have full access to everything in the Library is to be working onsite,
inside the walls.
Due to site license restrictions on some of our materials, we are only
able to send sample citations, or sometimes texts, to users. We
periodically direct them to a university library to alert them to
what’s out there.
There are differences between reference and research questions.
A reference question will be, ‘How tall
is the Washington Monument?’ It’s a finite answer we can provide them
Research, on the other hand, is open
ended ñ it’s not so much providing a ‘right’ answer as much as it
trying to give an overview of all of the relevant literature.
I speak about this in greater detail in my article ‘The Peloponnesian
War and the Future of Reference‘. It’s an overview of the whole
‘shape of the elephant’ of library services, within which cataloging is
only one component. The Six Blind Men of India, in the fable, each
latched onto a different part of the elephant and nobody perceived the
whole animal, all it parts, or how the parts fit together.
Give people the perspective of the ‘shape of the elephant’ of their
research and they’ll much better be able to execute their research.
We have thousands of specialized encyclopedias, finding the right
subject heading is crucial. Library search mechanism and databases are
usually capable of giving better overviews than Internet keyword
searching can provide.
Every Monday morning we have a class for those who want to hone their
research skills. These days, every class is filled.
What are the ways in which the reference service is assessed (e.g.,
observation, user feedback, surveys, LibQual?
We don’t to my knowledge. We have stats for number of sources we use or
readers we help, beyond that its monthly reports and our division chief
extracts data from those.
Reference at the Library of Congress is trying to move more and more to
measurable stats. However it’s hard to measure how we help. Counting
responses doesn’t give much of a picture.
Usually, you don’t see the results of the help you provide. We don’t
see their finished papers, or the presentations they make or the
reports they turn in. There’s no good way to follow up to see how their
project or research turned out.
There’s not a good ‘countable unit’ in reference, but the people above
me are aware of that.
How is the reference service promoted?
Apart from the ‘Ask the Librarian’ link on the home page, we’ve got a
reader registrations system (user gets ID), and librarians will ask
what users are doing and then they’re be directed to any of the 23
Everybody has to get a registration card and will be told it’s ok to be
talk to a reference librarian.
I like to ask people what they’re working on, whether they volunteer
that information or not; and once I know what they’re doing, I can
direct them appropriately. I’ll write down a list of databases and
resources they’ve never heard of.
Going back to the experience I referenced earlier about the professor
looking for taxable people in the 1820s–he was looking for someone’s
papers, but he didn’t ask about the reports he was trying to find. I
found that out only by getting into a conversation with him about his
What would you like to see changed in reference?
Everybody should read my book ‘The Oxford Guide to
I would like to see it change in the way it’s taught. My impression is
that the way it’s taught is how to think critically about websites.
There’ a lost more to it than that. For one thing, we need to do a lot
better job in telling people about the amazing range of sources that
aren’t on the open Internet to begin with.
It usually involves looking in so many more places than one. Library of
Congress Subject Headings are critical ñ what are the terms that are
best suited for searching the source you’re ñ controlled headings and
descriptors, or uncontrolled keywords? There’s an enormous difference
between subject and keyword search–and citation searches or browsing
the stacks or using bibliographies or talking to people.
Each will show you something different. Changing the search technique
changes what you see in the results.
Note: I did advise Mr. Mann that SU teaches critical thinking and that
search is far beyond Google and the internet. He was relieved.
What trends do you see in regard to your reference services (Is the
service changing? Why?)
The profession is radically getting dumbed down
There is so much more to search than Google or OCLC.
You need to see relationships between subjects and their headings. Tags
by users are simply no substitute. They’re okay as supplements to
controlled vocabulariesóbut not substitutes.
There’s a need to go beyond the internet and look at the systems
librarians and publishers have developed that are not accessible by
Google or the other engines.
Any tips for recent MLIS grads?
I wish more people would read my book. Seriously. There’s a ton of
stuff there I didn’t learn in library school. Something that might have
been mentioned only in passing in a class may be immensely important in
day to day operations.
I’m trying to fight this idea that all reference is internet based. It
isn’t. We need a toolkit that gives us more than just the Internet to
work with. We need that too, of course-but we need a lot more if we’re
trying to promote scholarship.