Annsofie Oscarsson
Head of Reference
Umeå University Library, Sweden

[Archive – Historical Material]

Reference and information work is one of the fundamental pillars of our libraries, and has turned out to be even more important concurrently with the information explosion on the Internet. This information overflow is a phenomenon that may seem, at first glance, easy to handle as "You can find anything on the Net". As librarians we know that this is not the real truth. If you think that you found what you searched for, there are still lots of pitfalls, one of which could be summarized into one word: Quality. The Internet explosion entails besides many new aspects, like access and availability, due to complicated copyright restrictions. We also must recognize, reorganize and adapt our services in order to meet with the new virtual needs. In this respect I am referring to both digital and physical environments, as both virtual and physical patrons form our user community today.

These are just a few reasons for claiming that traditional reference librarian skills will continue to be valid and will continue to provide a good foundation for the sector, together with new skills such as interpersonal ones, technology, pedagogical skills, and probably skills that we yet cannot identify. Traditionally, the mission of reference librarians is to retrieve, structure and evaluate information, but will this be unique to us in the future? One important aspect is, that we are facing competition from other information providers on the net and how do we handle that? Will libraries be the place where we will work in the future? Which organization will best fit future needs? Cooperation will be even more important, and how do we best organize collaborative reference service between libraries world wide? The technique is here, but how do we use it in the most appropriate way?

It is extremely important that these matters are treated, discussed and considered on an international level, and IFLA is an excellent and vigorous forum of great importance for the library sector in many fields.

Up to 1997 there was no forum within IFLA addressing specifically Reference Work. At the Copenhagen conference, I took the initiative of starting a Discussion Group on this topic. The Section of Document Delivery and Interlending (Division V, Collections and Services) agreed to affiliate the group. The number of participants has increased every year from 40 for the first meeting, more than 100 librarians attended the Bangkok meeting, and 150 reference librarians participated in this year's discussions in Jerusalem. With respect to the importance of assessing this field of librarianship and considering the great interest with which this Discussion Group has been met, it is my hope and desire that Reference Work will continue to be addressed within this organization on a permanent basis. I will give a short background and a brief overview of the work of this group until today.

Start-up meeting, Copenhagen 1997

The scope of the Discussion Group was discussed, and defined to include all aspects of reference work in all types of libraries in all regions. The importance of the new electronic environment should be emphasized, and also the fact that a change is taking place in reference work. The future role of reference work should be an important issue as well as the quality aspect. It was generally agreed to cover the following important topics:

  • Organization
  • Ethics
  • The impact of electronic materials
  • Reference collections
  • Continuing education of reference librarians


Discussions have mainly been based on discussion papers, submitted in advance and available on IFLANET to permit browsing before the conference. Reports from meetings are also posted on the Discussion Group's web page.

1:st Official meeting, Amsterdam 1998

The topic of the first official meeting was The Organization of Reference Services. In order to find out if there were any differences in the organization with respect to library type with regard to the reference department, reference services etc, the following four library types were identified: National Libraries, University and Research Libraries, Public Libraries and Special Libraries. From each of them a coordinator conducted, and reported on a survey based on three questions:

  1. Where in the organization is the reference department found?
  2. Which services are offered, and are there different levels?
  3. What are the positive and negative effects?

The substance of the discussion which followed was that it is not always the organization itself that is important but rather the needs of the users and what they expect from reference librarians. However, as a result of information technology, a change in the organizations can be expected in a foreseeable future. Another issue was how we can serve the users in the best way, whether physical or virtual – this is really the focus point and highlights the importance of defining reference work. Which services are we going to provide in the future? How do we adapt our library organization to meet with future needs?

2nd Official Meeting, Bangkok 1999

The theme of this year's Disscusion Group on Reference Work was The New Definition of Reference Work in a Changing Reference Culture.More than 100 people attended the meeting from different parts of the world. There were eight papers submitted and four of the authors were present at the meeting. Two of the papers referred to surveys based on the questionnaire from previous year. The two surveys assess the changing nature of reference work. One of the challenging facts which came up was, that if reference librarians cannot uphold a good standard, users will try to obtain their answers from other reference service providers. The conclusions highlight the changing relationship between reference librarians and users.

Among other issues scanned from the papers was Roving Reference, in which reference librarians rove around with the potential of answering questions, and can also rove around the collection with wireless communication. The point is that users want help and information where they are, that is, in front of the computer catalogue, the CD-databases etc., and do not want to leave the computers to walk up to the reference desk. The concept of the "virtual reference interview" or how to make the computerized reference service more human, was also discussed as well as declining statistics regarding reference desk questions.

3rd Official Meeting, Jerusalem 2000

The theme A Space Odyssey: Building Bridges Between Virtual and Physical Reference Services attracted more than 150 reference librarians. The meeting room was quite crowded and many people were listening to the session from an adjacent room. Five discussion papers were briefed, giving input for the following discussion. The user, the physical patron, was addressed in many aspects as well as the new possibilities of serving remote, virtual users. A model for evaluating and developing reference services on the Internet was also described. Several interesting ongoing projects from the US were reported on, such as the Collaborative Digital Reference Services promoted by the Library of Congress. Aspects and solutions to problems with regard to reference services within special collections such as European Document Information, which is an typical example of fields where both printed and electronic material is used, were presented. Changes in the physical reference environment and the abolition of the traditional reference desk in favor of roving librarians were lively discussed. The changing role of reference librarians, and the willingness or unwillingness to change attitudes and methods of working were taken up as well as the generation shift and the importance of acquiring young professionals for reference service. Finally, real-time digital service was mentioned, such as chatting with an expert, a theme that certainly will be highlighted in future discussions.