Library reference desk

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The reference desk or information desk of a library is a public service counter where professional librarians provide library users with direction to library materials, advice on library collections and services, and expertise on multiple kinds of information from multiple sources.



Librarians are experts in the contents and arrangement of their collections, as well as how information is organized outside the library. Library users are encouraged not to be shy about asking a reference librarian for help. Even though most librarians stay busy when not serving a patron, their primary duty when they are at the desk is to assist library users.

Purpose and usage

Library users can consult the staff at the reference desk for help in finding information. Using a structured reference interview, the librarian works with the library user to clarify their needs and determine what information sources will fill them. To borrow a medical analogy, reference librarians diagnose and treat information deficiencies.

The ultimate help provided may consist of reading material in the form of a book or journal article, instruction in the use of specific searchable information resources such as the library's online catalog or subscription bibliographic/fulltext databases, or simply factual information drawn from the library's print or online reference collection. Typically, a reference desk can be consulted either in person, by telephone, through email or online chat, although a library user may be asked to come to the library in person for help with more involved research questions. A staffed and knowledgeable reference desk is an essential part of a library.

The services that are provided at a reference desk may vary depending on the type of library, its purpose, its resources, and its staff.


Resources that are often kept at a library reference desk may include:

  • A small collection of reference books (called ready reference) that are most often used, so that the librarians can reach them quickly, especially when they are on the phone, and so that the books will be returned in time for someone else to use later the same day. The library's full reference collection is usually nearby as well.
  • Newspaper clipping files and other rare or restricted items that must be returned to the reference desk.
  • Index cards with the answers to frequently asked questions, and/or drawers with folders of pamphlets and photocopies of pages that, from previous experience, were difficult to find. These enable librarians to find such information quickly without leaving the deskā€”even faster than they could look it up in a reference book or using the Internet.
  • Books and other items that are being held for library users who asked the librarian by phone to set them aside for them to pick up later the same day, or within the next few days.
  • Books from the circulating collection that have been set aside for students working on a special assignment, and are temporarily designated to be used only within the library until the project is due.
  • Printed lists of items in the library that are not in the catalogue, such as newspapers, school yearbooks, old telephone directories, college course catalogues, and local history sources.

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