Definitions of Reference

Reference and User Services Association (RUSA)

Approved by RUSA Board of Directors, January 14, 2008

Submitted by subgroup of RSS Executive Committee

Reference Transactions are information consultations in which library staff recommend, interpret, evaluate, and/or use information resources to help others to meet particular information needs. Reference transactions do not include formal instruction or exchanges that provide assistance with locations, schedules, equipment, supplies, or policy statements.

Reference Work includes reference transactions and other activities that involve the creation, management, and assessment of information or research resources, tools, and services.

(The following bullets clarify what is meant by terms within the Reference Work definition.)

  • Creation and management of information resources includes the development and maintenance of research collections, research guides, catalogs, databases, web sites, search engines, etc., that patrons can use independently, in-house or remotely, to satisfy their information needs.
  • Assessment activities include the measurement and evaluation of reference work, resources, and services.

Association of Research Libraries (ARL)

A reference transaction is an information contact that involves the knowledge, use, recommendations, interpretation, or instruction in the use of one or more information sources by a member of the library staff. The term includes information and referral service. Information sources include (a) printed and nonprinted material; (b) machine-readable databases (including computer-assisted instruction); (c) the library's own catalogs and other holdings records; (d) other libraries and institutions through communication or referral; and (e) persons both inside and outside the library. When a staff member uses information gained from previous use of information sources to answer a question, the transaction is reported as a reference transaction even if the source is not consulted again. If a contact includes both reference and directional services, it should be reported as one reference transaction. Duration should not be an element in determining whether a transaction is a reference transaction. Sampling based on a typical week may be used to extrapolate to a full year for Question 34. Please indicate if the figure is based on sampling. Exclude simple directional questions.

A directional transaction is an information contact that facilitates the logistical use of the library and that does not involve the knowledge, use, recommendations, interpretation, or instruction in the use of any information sources other than those that describe the library, such as schedules, floor plans, and handbooks. See The ARL Statistics Web page for links to documents containing current definitions.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)

Reference Transactions Definition: A reference transaction is an information contact, which involves the knowledge, use, recommendations, interpretation, or instruction in the use of one or more information sources by a member of the library staff. It includes information and referral services. Information sources include printed and non-printed materials, machine-readable databases, catalogs and other holdings records, and, through communication or referral, other libraries and institutions and people inside and outside the library. The request may come in person, or by phone, fax, mail, or electronic mail from an adult, a young adult, or a child. Do not count directional transactions or questions of rules or policies. Examples of directional transactions are "Where are the children's books?" and "I'm looking for a book with the call number 811.2G." An example of a question of rules or policies is "Are you open until 9:00 tonight?" See the NCES Statistics Web page for links to documents containing current definitions.