Definitions of Reference

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Reference and User Services Association (RUSA)


Definition of Reference (2021) 


Originally prepared by a subgroup of the RSS Executive Committee; approved by the RUSA Board of Directors, January 14, 2008. 

Revised by Rebecca Eve Graff, Elizabeth German, Cynthia Johnson, and Janet T. O’Keefe; approved by the RUSA Board of Directors, December 13, 2021. 


To update the 2008 version and to extend the conception of reference work beyond the transactional. 


The 2021 Definition of Reference focuses on describing the nature of reference work. The methodology and process can be found in RUSA White Paper: Towards a New Definition of Reference. While counting and assessing reference transactions is critical for library operations, the 2021 Definition seeks to provide a venue for reference practitioners to explore the boundaries and morphing nature of reference work -- independent of the statistics used to measure the impact of this work. For guidance on gathering reference statistics, please refer to NISO Standard Z39.7, “Information Services and Use: Metrics and Statistics for Libraries and Information Providers.” Through the newly created Reference Toolkit, other resources are provided to assist practitioners and administrators in the assessment of reference work, while the Definition and Reference Work Themes allow for our community of practice to create new understandings and deepen our knowledge of reference. 

The Definition of Reference 

Reference is providing assistance by using expertise in response to an information need. 

The Definition in Context 

Reference is in response to a current information need. The interaction is initiated by an individual or group of people working together. This includes a library worker recognizing an apparent information need and seeking to assist with it. Reference work aims to ensure that library users can find the resources they need when they want them. 

Although reference and instruction are part of a continuum and reference assistance could include instruction, reference is not considered formal instruction. Formal instruction is teaching based on anticipated needs and is initiated by an instructor. 

Reference help is not workshops or other programming designed by library staff in anticipation of an information need. 

Reference Work Themes 

Examples of reference work are provided for each theme. These lists are intended to be illustrative, rather than comprehensive. 

Providing Informational Expertise

Meeting library users where they want to meet you, in-person (consultations, roving, or walk-ups) or remotely (chat, phone, text, video) 

Applying the reference interview process to learn what the user wants to find

Demonstrating search and retrieval techniques 

Identifying authoritative, high-quality information 

Connecting users with the information they seek 

Assisting users with resources in a variety of formats, including technological

Empowering our users to navigate future information needs

Explaining how to think about information systems in order to find needed resources 

Referring users to other resources, as appropriate 

Recommending and Interpreting Resources 

Developing research guides and FAQs as asynchronous aids for on-demand assistance 

Helping to interpret guides and manuals, such as for citations or software, or applying knowledge to solve problems for which such handbooks might be used 

Advising library users about what they might want to read 

Optimizing discovery tools so they are more likely to lead users to relevant information 

Collecting and managing resources 

Understanding your community's information ecosystem in order to select appropriate sources 

Promoting Services 

Advertising for increased outreach 

Demonstrating how we might be of service to increase effectiveness and impact 

Managing Service Points 

Designing services with library users’ experience in mind 

Ensuring on-demand services so that library workers are available when users are most likely to need our help 

Evaluating or assessing service provision 

Implementing ongoing professional development opportunities

Training professional, paraprofessional, and student staff to respond effectively to inquiries 

Further Readings 

Detailed methodology and processes can be found in the RUSA Definition of Reference OSF archive. 

A history of the definition of reference through 2002 can be found in Definitions of Reference Service: A Chronological Bibliography.