What do I mean by “reference”?

Thanks to the many people who have already sent in case study proposals or questions in response to the call for proposals for books on innovative best practices in outreach and reference in archives and special collections. However, I’m concerned that so far everyone has been interested in contributing only to the outreach book. None for the reference book. I noted this on Twitter and got a reply from someone who said she wasn’t sure what I meant by “reference.”

So, to aid in understanding and perhaps to inspire some people, here’s how I’m scoping reference (for the purposes of this book, not being proposed as a formal definition):

  • Receiving reference requests, that is, questions from users about the content of the collections
  • Tracking and managing the process of receiving and responding to requests
  • Conducting a “reference interview” to clarify user needs, either on site or online
  • Responding to requests, including ways of delivering relevant content
  • Providing access to materials to offsite users through services like interlibrary loan or virtual reading rooms
  • Internal or external knowledge management used to aid in providing reference assistance (such as the creation of ready reference collections or FAQ resources)
  • Facilitating knowledge transfer about collections between staff, including between experienced and new staff or between processing and reference staff

I am also including managing the research room in the Reference book, so activities such as:

  • Registering researchers and providing them with an overview of the archives and its policies
  • Developing, updating and sharing research room policies (including activities such as the use of scanners and digital cameras)
  • Providing access to collections
  • Determining when and how to restrict access to collections
  • Maintaining security in the reading room

It’s possible you would prefer these activities lumped together under “reference and access” rather than just “reference.” I tend to use the latter to cover all activities that support providing access to collections. I’m sure I’ve forgotten some embarrassingly obvious part of the process, so if I have, please let me know. That’s not intended as an exhaustive list, rather an example of what I’m looking for in the case studies. I hope that’s helpful.

There was also a question on Twitter about why I separated reference and outreach into two different categories, since providing reference is seen as a form of outreach to some. I agree, in a larger sense, that every contact with the public is a potential outreach opportunity. However I see a clear difference between activities generated by users knowing they want access to collections (reference) and activities in which the archivist is trying to increase public awareness of the collection (outreach). There are many ways to categorize activities, but this is the way it makes sense to me.

So again, I hope to see many interesting case study proposals for “innovative” (that is, useful and current) practices in both reference and outreach in archives and special collections. As you might expect, I’m happy to receive case studies that including uses of technology (such as chat, Facebook, wikis, YouTube, blogs, Drupal, Omeka, Pinterest, Tublr, etc.), but some challenges are just as easily addressed using modified practices or low-tech solutions. The deadline is January 31. If you have a question or need clarification, please feel free to ask.


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