Reference: A Short History

Reference: A Short History

Rosanne M. Cordell (Northern Illinois University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4241-6.ch001
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Reference services in libraries in the United States were first described and organized in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. However, these first attempts at formalizing “reader’s assistance” were in public libraries. Academic libraries lagged behind public libraries in the appointment of reference librarians and in the recognition of the need for reference services for their library users. The appointment of academic librarians became more common in the first quarter of the twentieth century. As academic library faculty and staff increased, so too did the use of technologies for reference services. The digitization of reference sources ushered in an era of re-evaluation and revitalization of reference services, as well as the transition to online sources and virtual services.
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Reference Service Is Defined

Reference as a formal and organized service in American libraries was first described in 1876 by Samuel S. Green of the Worcester Free Public Library in his essay in the second issue of American Library Journal, in which he suggested the manner in which a librarian may make “modest men in the humbler walks of life, and well-trained boys and girls...become ready to say freely what they want” because “persons who use a popular library for purposes of investigation generally need a great deal of assistance,” (p. 74). In describing the appropriate approach to reference work, Green states that “It is important to have a democratic spirit in dealing with readers in popular libraries...The superiority of the [librarian’s] culture will always enable him to secure the respectful treatment which belongs to him when confronted by impudence or conceit...What is needed in the librarian is a ready sympathy with rational curiosity, by whomsoever manifested, and a feeling of pleasure in brightening any glimmerings of desire that manifest themselves in lowly people to grow in culture or become better informed...” Further, a librarian should “be careful not to make inquirers dependent. Give them as much assistance as they need, but try at the same time to teach them to rely upon themselves and become independent,” (p. 80).

No such admonishments about being careful not to coddle library users appear in the literature for academic libraries. Green stated, “when scholars and persons of high social position come to a library, they have confidence make known their wishes without timidity or reserve,” (p. 74) although he admits that “it would be easy to show that scholars, as well as unlearned persons, receive much aid in pursuing their studies from an accomplished librarian, although he has not the knowledge of a specialist,” (p. 78). Green’s essay makes it clear that, by the date of his writing, reference services were widely offered in public libraries, but academic libraries expected their users to be willing and able to ask for assistance in direct and confident ways, rather than waiting for a librarian to approach with an offer of assistance. The belief that scholars did not (and should not) need librarian assistance kept academic libraries decades behind public libraries in establishing departments whose purpose was helping patrons use the library.

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