Reference work or reference librarianship is the personal assistance given by librarians to individual readers in pursuit of information. Evaluation and selection of materials, current awareness services, and dissemination of information, user education, community information services, and inter-library loans are some of the duties of reference librarians. The purpose of reference work is to allow efficient flow from information sources to those who need it (our users). Without the librarian bringing information sources and seekers together, the flow may either never take place or if it does take place, it will be in an inefficient manner.
The reference librarian, therefore, ensures that there is a people-to-information and people-to-people connections. In order to ensure that reference services meet the needs of the customers or users, it is necessary to not just provide materials – be it specific or general, printed or electronic – but it is also important to ensure that the staff members who are providing these services are able to exploit fully and appropriately, the resources available. The reference librarian and his/her staff members should have the following skills or qualities: friendly, well-trained, patient, compassionate, and tactful. They should also refer the inquirer, have courtesy, and listening skills.
However, most of those working at the reference desk in Namibia lack skills, are not friendly, very impatient, and are not so well-trained. This makes library users to lose trust in librarians as well as credit the profession. They become angry when they do not get resources they are looking for, simply because the person behind the desk lacks tactics and expertise to deliver or point them to alternative sources. In his book, Entrepreneurial Librarianship: the key Effective Information Services Management Guy St Clair (1996, p. 3) emphasise the importance of service when he says:
Excellence of service begins with one’s approach to one’s work, the perspective from which one views the information function in the community or organization. It also includes a disposition toward service, a willingness to provide the user with whatever it is he or she seeks, and a bias toward care. …This willingness to take on the user’s problem is a defining principle for people who choose information services as a career.
Therefore, reference librarians and those working at the reference desk need to ask the following questions to themselves:
– Who needs the information?
– At what level is the information required?
– In what detail is the information required?
– How urgent is the information required?
– In what format is the information required?
– And perhaps, more importantly, am I making a difference?
If we fail to address the challenges and problems of our users, we will fail to make any significant impact in the communities we serve, and surely the users will question our qualifications, expertise and credibility. We should ensure that our users leave the library with satisfaction, and we should instill confidence in them, and give them hope.