Course:5: Access and Outreach
Lesson:Lesson 1: Good Reference and Access Practices
Topic:Providing Reference Services

Providing Reference Services

Creating a policy and good registration practices is just the first step in providing reference services to your users. Equally important are the physical environment and your interactions with the users.

Physical Environment

Every physical space is different and you will have to do the best with what you have. The physical space where people use your collections needs to include:

  • A desk or space for registering users
  • Facilities for users to leave their belongings while they use the collections
  • Desks or flat work surfaces with adequate lighting to allow users to work with the collections, take notes, etc. Ideally these should be in full view of a staff member who is responsible for supervising the use of unique historical records.
  • Access to reference materials (dictionaries, atlases, publications and other frequently used, but not unique, material)
  • Access to your catalogs and finding aids

Research room

Provide a comfortable working environment.

Research room
How you interact with users sets the comfort level as well.


Interacting With Your Users

When visitors enter your facility, the first thing staff should do is greet them and get them registered. First time users may need further explanation of why registration is necessary, direction in where to leave their belongings, and other basic information about your facilities.

News users will also need an explanation of your collections and information about how to find what they are looking for; so you will need to tell them about your reference materials, finding aids and tools, and about the procedures they need to use if they want to look at a particular collection. If you find that you are explaining the same things over and over, you might consider creating handouts that cover these kinds of basic information. They will save you time and help your users. Handouts can be distributed at the time of registration.

Once users are registered and understand your facilities, your role is to help them find what they are looking for. The key to providing good reference service is to listen carefully and know your collections. Some users will know exactly what they want to find (for example, Anne Smith’s death certificate from March 23, 1930), while others may have more general research questions. Generally speaking, the more novice the researchers and the more generalized their questions, the more you will need to work with them.

Essentially, your role is to match the researcher to the appropriate collections. To do this you will need to listen carefully and ask researchers follow-up questions to determine exactly what they are looking for. Then use your knowledge of your collections and your finding aids and tools to point researchers in the right direction.

Welcome sign

Man with intent expression, listening carefully
Careful listening is a key to providing good reference services.