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Reference in urban public libraries: current trends and future implications

Laura Saunders (SLIS, Simmons University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA)
Rachel Williams (Simmons University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA)
Genevieve Galarneau (Simmons University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA)
Gianna C. Gifford (Boston Public Library, Boston, Massachusetts, USA)

Reference Services Review

ISSN: 0090-7324

Article publication date: 17 April 2023

Issue publication date: 5 December 2023




The purpose of this study was to get a baseline understanding of the state of reference services in urban public libraries in the United States.


The researchers surveyed all members of the Urban Libraries Council, a network of public library systems in urban centers across the country. The survey asked about their reference services, including how reference is offered, volume and types of questions and staff responsibilities. Participants were also asked how reference has changed in the past 5–10 years and what changes they anticipate in the future.


This study found that the vast majority of urban public libraries still maintain a physical reference desk, but most also offer reference services in other formats as well. Most libraries have seen numbers of reference questions decline. Reference staff members are engaged in instruction, programming and community outreach as well. Looking ahead, some libraries expect reference questions to continue to decline and demand for virtual services to increase.

Practical implications

Directors and reference staff of public libraries, especially those in urban and suburban settings, will find these results useful for benchmarking against their own experiences and for planning for future changes.


While discussions of changes in reference service and volumes of reference questions are plentiful, as are predictions of how these declines will impact reference services, there is little current research on the actual state of those services. This study fills a gap in the literature by providing a baseline overview of the reference services in urban public libraries.



Saunders, L., Williams, R., Galarneau, G. and Gifford, G.C. (2023), "Reference in urban public libraries: current trends and future implications", Reference Services Review, Vol. 51 No. 3/4, pp. 273-286.



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