Reference Service Policy - Newark Public Library

Reference Service Policy

Reference Services Policy
Adopted by the Board of Trustees
June 5, 1996

Table of Contents

Philosophy of Service
Parameters of Service
Appendix A: American Library Association: Library Bill of Rights
Appendix B: American Library Association: Guidelines for Medical, Legal and Business Reference
Appendix C: American Library Association Code of Ethics


This policy is promulgated in order to serve as a public statement of the Library’s intentions concerning reference services and to establish clear guidelines for the library staff to aid in the provision of those services.

This policy is broadly based, but with extensive revisions, on Information Services for Information Consumers: Guidelines for Providers prepared by the Standards and Guidelines Committee, Reference and Adult Services Division, American Library Association, 1990.


The purpose of The Newark Public Library is to enable Newark residents, students and workers to enrich their own lives with knowledge, information, education and culture.


The mission of The Newark Public Library is to provide for the people of Newark an easily available local collection of and global access to the universal record of human thought, wisdom, ideals, information, experiences, and artistic expressions.

The Library provides information useful for daily living, supports formal education and independent learning efforts and assists researchers and scholars.

In pursuing this mission the Library strives to fulfill its unique responsibility to ensure free, open and equal access to information for all the people that the Library serves.

The Library actively seeks to serve and reflect the diverse Newark community in its collections, services, programs and staff. It affirms a commitment to preserve, promote and celebrate the multicultural heritage of the people of Newark.

The Newark Public Library contributes to the economic life of the city, the vitality of its neighborhoods and the quality of life of its citizens.

Philosophy of Service

Reference service at The Newark Public Library is one of the most vital and visible expressions of the Library’s purpose and mission and is key to each of the Library’s four primary service roles: to serve as a center for information, formal education, research and independent learning.

Reference service is defined in this document as personal assistance provided to users and potential users of information. Reference service takes a variety of forms including direct personal assistance, directories or signs, exchange of information culled from a reference source, readers’ advisory assistance, dissemination of information in anticipation of user needs or interests, and direct end-user access to an information system via telecommunication hardware and software.

The Library, because it possesses, organizes and provides access to its community’s single largest concentration of information resources, must develop information services appropriate to its community and in keeping with the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights: (Appendix A). These services shall take into account the information-seeking behaviors, the information needs, and the service expectations of the members of the community. Provision of information in the manner most useful to its clients is the ultimate test of all a Library does.

The Library shall actively publicize the scope, nature, and availability of the information services it offers. It shall employ those media most effective in reaching its entire clientele or selected segments of that clientele.

The Library shall survey and assess the information needs of its community and create local information products to fulfill those needs not met by published materials.

The Library shall serve its community by collecting and creating information and referral files to provide access to the services and resources of local, regional, and state organizations.

Based on its clients’ known needs and interests, the Library shall provide information even if it has not been explicitly requested.

The Library’s building shall not be a boundary to its information services. It shall identify and employ external databases, agencies, and services to help meet the information needs of its community.

The Library shall participate in consortia and networks to obtain access to information sources and services it cannot provide on its own.

When the Library is not able to provide a client with needed information, it shall refer either the client or the client’s question to some other agency, an expert, or another library which can provide the needed information.

The Library shall use or provide access to information systems outside the Library when these systems meet information needs more effectively and efficiently than internal resources can.

It is the policy of the Library to consider each individual information query to be of equal merit regardless of the age, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual preference, English language proficiency or status of the inquirer. The Library’s intention is to accord equal attention and effort to each inquiry, although the time spent by staff on a question may vary in response to the perceived needs of the patron, the information resources (both staff and collections) available and the method of receipt of the inquiry.


The goal of reference service is to provide an end-product: the information sought by the user. Reference service shall not only meet but also anticipate user needs. The Library staff shall encourage user awareness of the potential of information resources to fulfill individual information needs.

The Library shall seek to provide users with complete, accurate answers to their information queries regardless of the complexity of those queries.

The Library shall make available user aids, in print and other media, to help users identify items in the collection relevant to their interests and needs.

The Library shall provide instruction in the effective use of its resources. Such instruction can range from the individual explanation of information resources or creation of guides in appropriate media to formal assistance through interpretive tours and group presentations designed to provide guidance and direction in the pursuit of information.

Parameters of Service

Reference service is the personal assistance that Library staff provide to users and potential users of information. Patrons inquiries are received and service is rendered in several settings: on site; via telephone or FAX; electronically or by mail.

On site reference service occurs when a Library patron comes to the Library to seek information or service. Maximum time to be accorded in-person patrons will be determined by the pace of activity in the reference area, the number of available staff, and the librarian’s discretion as to the patron’s needs.

Reference staff shall give priority to the needs of reference patrons on-site. When the demands of service exceed the available staff’s resources, telephone inquirers shall receive a taped message asking that the patron call again at another time.

Telephone reference service is intended to provide short, factual information and have a duration of five minutes or less. It may often be appropriate that a telephone patron be advised that an inquiry merits the patron’s more extensive on-site use of the Library resources.

The Library’s fee-based Gateway Service shall offer the alternative of staff conducted research for:

  • telephone questions that cannot be answered in five minutes, or less, or
  • patrons who prefer such service when time, distance or inconvenience precludes their on-site use of the Library

The Library shall not differentiate between the level of service provided based on the residence of patrons. Telephone inquiries from residents of other communities that exceed the parameter of telephone service shall be referred to their respective local libraries for additional assistance following New Jersey Library Network protocols. Such patrons shall also be offered the alternatives of on-site use of the Library where they can conduct their own research and the Gateway Service program.

Services to New Jersey Library Network member libraries shall be provided in accordance with the provisions of the New Jersey State Library Statewide Services Grant.

Non-mediated reference service is the use of the Library’s reference collection by patrons without librarian’s assistance. It is stated here as a separate entity in order to note its existence, extent of use, and importance as a factor to consider in the development of reference collections and services.

Responses to questions may differ widely: in the number of information resources consulted; in the amount of time spent; and in the amount of information conveyed.

Since particular kinds of questions are often problematical and place unusual demands on reference service, general guidelines are here stated in order to clarify for both staff and patrons the level of assistance that can reasonably be expected in these areas.

  • Collectibles, antiques and works of fine art:
  • Financial appraisals of collectibles (antiques, rare books, coins, stamps, etc.) and fine arts are not within the purview of the Library’s reference service. Values as they are stated in published price guides are provided. For additional information patrons may pursue further research on their own at the Library or be referred to appropriate professional services.
  • Translations:
  • Full text translations of documents shall not be provided by the library staff. Translations of individual words or phrases, as available in foreign language dictionaries or from the expertise of individual staff members, shall be provided to patrons.
  • Student assignments:
  • The Library shall handle students’ queries by telephone within the same parameters of service stated above. Students of any age calling with questions of a simple, factual nature shall receive assistance by telephone. Complicated assignments may necessitate that students conduct their own research, with the librarian’s assistance, at the Library.
  • Contests:
  • Patrons who call with contest questions that cannot be handled within the limits of telephone reference, shall be advised to conduct their own research at the Library.
  • Medical, legal and business:
  • Reference service in these areas shall be provided in accordance with the Guidelines prepared by the Reference and Adult Services Division of the American Library Association (Appendix B ).


The Library shall collect or provide access to information resources germane to its mission and reflecting the interests of the full spectrum of the population it serves. These information resources shall satisfy, through content, currency, format, organization, and quantity a diversity of user needs.

The Library shall provide access to the most current reference sources available in order to assure the accuracy of information.

As appropriate, reference services staff shall reach beyond reference collections to tap the resources of the Library as a whole. To provide the information their users need, they shall also reach beyond in-house collections and in-house expertise by drawing on the resources of other organizations that collect and provide information, by consulting individual experts, by tapping external information sources regardless of their medium, and by accessing the world of information accessible via the Internet.

The Library has a separate policy governing use of the Internet.


The Library shall make service areas for reference services highly visible and readily accessible to all users.

The Library shall support state-of-the-art communications methods for access to information resources for users, whether within or outside its building(s).

The Library shall design service points to accommodate the needs of all users, including the disabled.

The Library shall provide appropriate equipment in adequate quantities and in good working order for the convenient, efficient consultation of local and remote information resources by staff and the public. This includes communications hardware and software, printers and copiers.

Operating hours for reference services shall be determined by community needs and interests and the Library’s financial and staff resources.

The Library shall attempt to staff reference service points with sufficient qualified personnel during the hours that best meet the information needs of the community.


Reference service staff members shall communicate easily and effectively with the full range of the Library’s clientele regardless of a client’s age, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual preference, or English-language proficiency.

Reference services staff shall have knowledge and preparation appropriate to meet the information needs of the clientele the Library serves. Staff responsible for the services shall be thoroughly familiar with and competent in using information sources, retrieval techniques, telecommunication methods, and interpersonal communications skills.

Continuing education of reference service staff is essential to professional growth. It is the responsibility of the individual to seek continuing education and of the employing institution to support its staff’s continuing education efforts and, when possible, to provide continuing education programs.

The conduct of all Library staff, including those who provide reference services shall be governed by the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics (Appendix C).


The Library shall regularly evaluate its service to assure that the service furthers the institution’s goals and that the goals reflect the needs and interests of the community served. Results of evaluation shall be used to determine the optimum allocation of resources to provide quality service.

The Library shall integrate the perspectives of staff and community in the overall evaluation of reference service.

While the Library shall strive to provide the best possible service for all patrons at all times, it is recognized that, given the volume and diversity of questions handled, problems may arise concerning the public’s satisfaction with service received. In such situations patrons are encouraged to express their concerns to the individual Library staff involved or to that individual’s immediate supervisor in order to effect an amicable resolution of the problem in the most direct manner. Complaints that cannot be resolved at the division head’s level shall be referred to the appropriate department head for further attention.

Appendix A:
American Library Association: Library Bill of Rights

The American Library Association affirms that all libraries are forums for information and ideas, and that the following basic policies should guide their services.

I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.

II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.

V. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged becauseof origin, age, background, or views.

VI. Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.

Adopted by the American Library Association June 18, 1948.
Amended by the ALA Council on February 2, 1961; June 27, 1967 and January 23, 1980.

Appendix B:
Guidelines for Medical, Legal and Business Responses at General Reference Desks

Adapted from the Guidelines prepared by the Standards and Guidelines Committee, Reference and Adult Services Division, American Library Association, 1992.

The following guidelines are designed to assist staff at reference desks in meeting user needs and in responding to users requesting medical, legal, or business information. To ensure that malpractice claims will not follow, librarians need to keep current in their subject areas, refer questions beyond their level of competency to others, document search strategies and sources, and explain to the users the librarians’ responsibility to provide sources rather than interpretation.

The Library’s reference collection shall contain current, accurate, and accessible medical, legal, and business information appropriate to the needs of the community served. The reference transaction shall fully satisfy the user’s need for information, either by providing accurate sources in hand, or clear and concise referrals to obtainable sources located elsewhere.

Role of Librarians
Particularly when asked legal, medical, or business reference questions, librarians shall make clear their role as information providers, not interpreters or advisers. They shall provide instruction in the use of resources, enabling users to pursue information independently and effectively, if so desired.

The reference librarian provides the Library user with information but does not evaluate that information. If the patron has trouble understanding the source, an alternative source shall be sought. If no appropriate sources can be located, the patron shall be referred to the legal, medical, or financial community for interpretation of the information.

Libraries may advise patrons regarding the relative merits of sources and make recommendations regarding Library materials when appropriate. Materials recommended shall be the most comprehensive and the most current available.

Confidentiality of user requests must be respected at all times. Questions shall not be discussed outside the Library, and names shall never be mentioned without the user’s permission.

As in all situations, reference librarians shall use discretion when interviewing users regarding medical, legal, and business questions. While it is important to conduct a thorough reference interview, this shall be done in such a way as to minimize discomfort to the user. The librarian shall try to identify the issue in question without intruding on the user’s privacy. Librarians shall be impartial and non judgmental in handling users’ queries.

The Library shall acquire appropriate materials in medical, legal, and business subject areas that meet the needs of the community served. The reference librarian shall direct the user to possible sources, both in and out of the library, where the information the user requires will be provided. These materials might include books, pamphlets, journals, electronic services, service agencies, and professionals in the appropriate field. When helping a user, librarians must be careful to avoid using technical terms. Under no circumstances shall information be withheld from a user.

Currency of Sources
The reference librarian shall always point out publication dates to the user. Because information in medical, legal, land business areas changes rapidly, the user shall be advised that there may be more current information available on the topic.

In subject areas where up-to-date information is essential, libraries shall provide the most current information possible, consistent with the needs of the library’s primary clientele and within the limitations of the Library’s materials budget and collection development policy.

Reference collections shall be weeded periodically to remove dated materials in subject areas where up-to-date information is essential. If retention of older materials is required for historical purposes, distinctions in dates shall be obvious.

Referral to Other Sources
Referrals shall be made only if the librarian expects that the agency, service, individual, or other source can and will provide the information needed. Librarians shall be prepared to refer questions to human as well as to written sources. Awareness of community, state, and private services outside of the Library proper is important. Reference librarians may provide access to biographical and other information that is available in directories and other sources. They may not make recommendations to specific lawyers, legal firms, doctors, other medical care providers, or financial professionals. Users shall be referred to county or state professional associations for additional information.

Telephone or Mail Reference
Special care must be taken with telephone, mail, electronic mail, and telefacsimile since it is easy to misinterpret phone messages, and written communications may need explanations or interpretation. Only factual information–such as dates, names and addresses, specific citations, or catalog checks–shall be given out over the telephone. Brief information may be read verbatim without interpretation. The source shall be given for all information provided. Users must come to the Library or be directed to a special library, for statutory or case law material, medical information beyond quoted definitionsof terms from standard medical dictionaries, or financial information encompassing more than the above.

Telephone or mail requesters may have to be informed that the Library does have information on the topic but that they will have to come into the Library to use the material. Questions received through the mail shall be answered with full citations for the source or with well-documented photocopies if such copies can be done within copyright requirements.

Appendix C:
American Library Association Code of Ethics

I. We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.

II. We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.

III. We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.

IV. We recognize and respect intellectual property rights.

V. We treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness and good faith, and advocate conditions of employment that safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions.

VI. We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.

VII. We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.

VIII. We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.

Adopted by the ALA Council June 28, 1995