Reference Librarianship: Notes from the Trenches

Vanda Broughton (School of Library, Archive and Information Studies, University College London, London, UK)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 25 April 2008




Broughton, V. (2008), "Reference Librarianship: Notes from the Trenches", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 64 No. 3, pp. 465-466.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This is a very unusual type of book, but one that provides an excellent overview of reference work in the contemporary library. The authors' objectives included the desire “to paint a clear picture of the field for library and information science students, to provide emotional and philosophical support for practitioners of reference librarianship … and, finally, to remind library administrators of what life in like … in the reference trench lines”. The text consists of two interwoven, but quite distinct, elements: firstly, a series of short reflective essays on diverse aspects of reference work penned by Charles Anderson, a reference librarian with more than 30 years experience, and an established contributor to the professional literature; and second, a record of real enquiries and some of their solutions, kept by Peter Sprenkle, a more recently qualified reference librarian, who for a period in 2003 and 2004, kept a blog, “Reference grunt”, in which he documented the questions of readers in a large public library.

The combination offers an engaging and often amusing look at life at the enquiry desk. Who could fail to be entranced by a request for “some books on the Karma Sutra, and also books on starting a home business”, or to share the dismay generated by “I'm looking for information on my ancestors, aunts, great aunts, and everything, and how they fit together, and I don't know anything about using a computer”.

It also provides a realistic picture of why we still need professional expertise at the enquiry desk, and a robust defence against the often‐held management view that, with the advent of the world wide web, everyone is his/her own reference librarian. Even a cursory analysis of the questions paints a compelling picture of the time spent on dealing with the photocopiers, the computers, and the requests for stationery, in addition to the other more interesting and challenging questions which still constitute a satisfying proportion of the work. The levels of information literacy among the general public are shown to be very different from what we may commonly believe, although user expectations are inversely extremely high, and the need for diplomatic and informed intervention in a whole range of user problems is made plain, if only for help with the technology itself.

Anderson's essays are thought‐provoking, and deal with a variety of evolving aspects of service provision. Alongside the obvious questions of balancing digital and print resources, he examines information literacy, marketing and promotion, library design, and other pressing concerns about the changing nature of libraries and librarians, including the role of Starbucks as a model for the library. These papers, if brief, are well constructed and very readable. They contain references to a small corpus of professional literature, although providing a comprehensive survey of current thinking is clearly not part of this book's remit, and the style is more editorial than analytical.

One could not pretend that this is a scholarly work, but it does have plenty of lively content, and there is much here that will cause readers to reflect, even if it does not tell them anything that is unfamiliar or innovative. The view from the battlefront is undeniably American, but the similarities of the experience are more striking than the differences, and, apart from, for example, regular allusions to requests for material in Spanish, I do not think one would immediately be aware of any US bias. Similarly, although the context is that of the public library, it does not differ substantially from my own experiences in a large local college library.

There is not much here that addresses the fact of new technologies and the emergent activity of digital reference, nor are the reference questions encountered tremendously challenging or difficult to answer. Rather, the scene is one of everyday life in an average library, the daily routine of the typical reference desk with all its irritations and delights. I could imagine using the essays as the starting point for work with students, and the tremendous collation of reference questions certainly provides a basis for discussion of reference strategies and the use of particular sources. But most of those who come to this work will do so for the enjoyment of the common experience, and for its undoubted entertainment value.

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