Friday, March 11, 2011

What Do Reference Librarians Do? Reference, Of Course!

I continue my series on what reference librarians do. Today I am reporting on real reference questions to illustrate the kind of work we do now. I have kept all client identifying information confidential.

I am happy to report that reference librarians do still answer reference questions. After several days without anything mentally challenging, a few good questions were asked Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

1) Are there any large print books about George VI of England, the subject of the award winning The King's Speech? A search of SWAN, the local consortium catalog, did not reveal any, nor did a search of Amazon. I later found two titles that might interest the reader through Worldcat. The first is Battle Royal: Edward VIII & George VI: Brother Against Brother by Kirsty McLeod, a British publication from 2000. We can request it through ILL from a handful of college libraries. The other is Elizabeth, the Queen Mother by Grania Forbes, Thorndike, 2000. It must be at least partially about George VI. No one in our consortium has it in large print, but we can again turn to ILL with confidence in getting it.

I learned the client would consider an audiobook as a substitute. I discovered that a new compact disc edition of the book The King's Speech by Mark Logue is just arriving at several of our member libraries.

2) Client wanted to find an audiobook listened to a couple of years ago. The author and title forgotten, but the client remembered that it was set in Yellowstone. I found we had Lost in My Own Backyard by Tim Cahill and the client recognized the case.

3) What were the consequences of the terms of the Treaty of Paris of 1919? We had two books about the treaty, but they were both checked out, of course. Looking in the European history section, I found three circulating books with chapters about treaty and its aftermath.

4) What is the background of the film director Marc Lawrence, who wrote and directed Music and Lyrics? What was his intent in making the movie? My search of our magazine and newspaper databases revealed only reviews in which very little was said about the director. The Gale biography databases profiled a deceased actor of the same name but nothing about the living person. Wikipedia had just basic biographical facts. The Internet Movie Database had a photo and some credits but nothing of substance. I finally found an interview of the director through a Google search of the web that contained some personal background and comments about the film.

5) Advise a client on which of our databases covered journals about information technology. I also advised the client (a tax payer) to get a library card at the community college to get access to many more databases than we can afford.

6) Find a book that poses that decades of American competition to undercut costs has actually hurt the economy in the long run. The book was Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppel Shell.

My observations about the work to answer these questions:

  • I am happy to be doing some of the work I was trained to do.
  • I like the seeking as much as the finding, but the clients really like the finding part.
  • Large print materials are, as always, limited. Here is where electronic books on handheld readers can help.
  • I am helping people find audiobooks often.
  • I used electronic resources in every case, but in the third question, I did best when I just started looking in the books. A good book is still great for serious study.
  • For the fourth question, expensive library tools did not provide the answer but the free web did. Perhaps the public has discovered cases like this, too, and feel less inclined to call on us for help.
  • I used no reference books in the answering of these questions.

With this work as evidence, I see there is still a reason to seek job candidates with strong reference skills.


I had many specific item requests during the three days, including books, movie DVDs, music CDs, and audiobooks. I even had requests for newspaper microfilms and a photocopy of an article from a medical journal. I used to make many ILL requests of microfilms for family historians, but I had not done so in many months. We usually find journal articles through some online source, but the journal in question has restricted fulltext to its own website, which charges high fees for articles.


There were two easy readers' advisory questions, both nonfiction! One involved finding the correct sequence for reading Winston Churchill's accounts of World War II and the other was finding other books that would interest a client reading about Margaret Bourke-White. In both cases, the readers took books from Dewey 940.53.


Among my non-reference duties, I spoke with five prospective performers/speakers/presenters for library programs during the three days. I updated several pages of the library website and ordered more tax forms. I registered numerous library users to attend our programs and worked on library statistics.

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