This essay will examine the development of reference
services, with a focus on academic libraries. Forms of reference have changed
over time. Initially, services were conducted in person, often at a service
desk, with librarians offering help with research and assistance in locating
and citing sources. Now that modes of communication have expanded into the
virtual world, these interactions are also changing. Academic libraries now regularly
offer reference assistance through e-mail, chat, mobile and Internet-based channels.
(Kilzner, 2011, pp. 291 – 292). It is these changes towards virtual reference
services which this essay will explore. This will be done through an
examination of the origins of reference services, followed by a discussion of
how these initial forms have changed over time, due to the changing needs of
the user as a response to the prominence of technology in people’s lives.
There is proof that the librarians came in to being not long after
the library itself. In Babylonian and Assyrian empires, a librarian had an
official title (“Man of the Tablets”), and librarians were identified in records
as far back as approximately 2,000 BCE. It is reasonable to imagine that the “Man
of the Tablets” would have answered reference queries (Anderson
2015, p. 4). As we will see below, while the concept of reference services
specifically is over a century old, reference librarianship in practice has its
origins in the latter half of the nineteenth century, partially in response to
one of that eras most important accomplishments – namely, the spread of
education. As more people were educated, education institutions grew in size,
and concurrently so did their libraries, both in size and complexity, hence the
focus on academic libraries in this essay. When new people came to use the
library, they were not skilled in how to use the library, and so libraries gradually
realised the need for a link between the library collections and the users.
That link became the librarian, which eventually developed in to the reference
librarian (Cassell & Hiremath, 2013, p. 3; Bopp & Smith, 2001, p. 4).
The development of reference departments can be seen from the mid-1800s
onwards. In the 1850s British libraries were differentiating between the
“reference library” from the “lending library”. These terms related to the use
of the books and their circulation rather than to the roles of the librarians
who worked in those institutions. One of the first reference departments was
started in Chicago by William Frederick Poole in the late 1880s, although
exactly what that entailed is difficult to discern. By 1881, the Chicago public
library had a “reference department” rather than a “reading room”. Library
architects were incorporating references departments into their building plans
around this time also. These reference departments referred to the type of
books located there rather than to the staff(Anderson & Cvetkovic, 2015, p. 6).
In 1876 Samuel Swett Green spoke in favour of librarians assisting
public library patrons in finding information and establishing a working
relationship with them. Green’s avocation of reference services in considered
to be seminal in the development of reference departments in libraries. Green’s
1876 article was the first published article about reference services, and it
was based on a presentation given at the first conference of the American
Library Association earlier that year. The article, titled “Personal Relations
between Librarians and Readers”, Samuel Green alluded to four functions of what
we now call reference service. These functions are:
• Teaching users how to use the library and directing them towards
the best sources of information;
• deducing from consultation with the user what it is they are
• Recommending sources to users that best fit their needs and
• Promoting the library within the community by mingling with the
users and assisting them as much as possible.
Although times and tools have changed significantly in the past
130+ years, these four functions have remained constant. Tyckoson, David A.
(2011) p. 259 Pena & Green 2006 pp. 163 – 164 (Anderson
2015, p. 6)
paper is surprisingly modern in its recommendations and concepts of reference
work. All the basic reference functions are touched on in his paper –
information, guidance, and instruction. He advised librarians in public
libraries that a lot of users, particularly working men and businessmen, do not
have either the time or the knowledge to search for the information they need. Therefore,
the librarian should search the information for them and present it to them.