Reference Questions

Handling questions from library users

About the work of librarians

Collecting information, listening to people's information-related problems and finding the information using appropriate sources are an integral part of the working life of a librarian. And so too can achieve the same sort of thing. So why a librarian?

Librarians are mainly there to help people with limited knowledge of how to find information and where to start to select or collect information, present information on the shelves or through brochures, and to help guide people to find information quickly and easily.

While information is not yet in the completely digital form and catalogue systems are still a little complicated to use, there will always be a need to have librarians (at least for this generation). Generally, as a librarian,

  1. You have to be there.
  2. You have to know a little about the subjects covered by a library.
  3. Your presentation is important.
  4. You must have some empathy with the public.

As a librarian you must be able to answer the same questions hundreds of times in a year. So you will need to find creative ways of handling this situation.

Types of enquiries

Almost all the enquiries you will receive as a librarian from the general public are based on four main types:

  1. Directional / Location enquiries

    Perhaps the most common question you will ever be asked is "Where is the toilet/photocopying machine?"

    Other questions include "How do I use the catalogue?", "The photocopy machine is jammed. Why?", "Does the library hold a particular book?", "Where are the journals kept?"

  2. Factual questions

    The public may also ask factual questions like "What is the tallest building in the world?"and you have to supply the reference material to help them find the simple and concise information they are looking for (e.g. The Guiness Book of World Records).

  3. Background

    Then there are questions relating to finding commonly accepted general knowledge information about a particular subject. In this situation, you will probably have to direct them to an encyclopedia, a textbook, an abstract or whatever. Essentially you are looking for essays that explain and summarise the knowledge required.

  4. Extensive enquiries

    And there are the few enquiries where a member of the public might be a researcher and he/she requires access to a wide range of information. In other words, some people may ask for more indepth information about a particular topic.

    In these rare circumstances, you may also be asked to draw your own conclusions about the information you gather like whether a book of a high quality compared to another and what the information is basically about.

How far should I go to help people?

Every library has their own policy on what librarians can and cannot do as part of their duties.

For example, it is usually a library policy to support student work, but not to do the work for students.

Every library will have their own policies. You must check them out what they are. For instance, at the National Library of Australia, the policy is to concentrate on helping professional researchers rather than schools students. The ACT Public Library may have a slightly more reversed policy.

Is the librarian an educator?

Yes and no, depending on the type of work you do.

The librarian can be an educator if he/she works at a school library. Why? Because it is now a requirements for school librarians to have a teacher qualification.

However, if we wanted to be highly generic about the term "educator", we could say that all librarians are educators because their job is to teach people how to find information, and even to summarise information for people to understand. But if that is not the case, then a librarian is merely someone who finds information for someone else.

The terms teacher and librarian are usually distinct terms. But the boundary can be blurred in the real world. If education is provided by librarians, it tends to be informal.

Where to find information for people

As a librarian, your main job will be to look for information. Information can be found in:

  1. Library catalogues;
  2. Library guides;
  3. Brochures on the information desk;
  4. The internet;
  5. Reference books like atlasses, yearbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias and statistical publications; and
  6. Scientific/trade journals.

For example, if you are asked where to find specific journals or a particular book, check the library catalogues. As for factual questions, check directories, atlasses, dictionaries, statistical sources, yearbooks and so on. And for extensive enquiries, you merely have to find books and periodical articles devoted in part or entirely to the topic being requested.

General Search Strategy

To deal with the extensive enquiries from researchers, this is the sort of thing you may be required to do:

  1. Work out precisely what the topic is about.
  2. Locate general background information about the topic from reference books (i.e. the encyclopedia).
  3. Take a note of any references to important specialised information sources such as journals.
  4. Check the bibliographies books that cover the topic.
  5. Again collect all the relevant published items from the bibliographies books.
  6. Recheck with the researcher that the information you have covered is useful and relevant. If necessary, restate what the topic is about and focus on this as you repeat the above procedure.
  7. Once the reference materials have been collected and the researcher is happy with the selection, use the catalogs to located the books.
  8. Use indexing and abstracting tools or online searches to find the journals.
  9. Use the Union Catalogues to locate information not held in your library.
  10. You may need to supply additional information to help the researcher verify data and help him/her understand specialised terminology. Use fact reference sources for this.
  11. Assess the pertinence and quality of the reference materials gathered through such means as reading book reviews.
  12. Compile the bibliography and give to the researcher.

The aim of librarians

The aim for librarians is to teach people how to find information and to minimise this amount of learning by making things easier for people to find information on their own.

Ultimately, it may be ideal not to have a librarian if possible. And from the way technology is advancing, it is likely the days are numbered for most librarians except for the most specialised of library services (probably combined with other areas such as IT and technology, archival services etc). But the choice should be there if people want them to be there.


Question1: Who are the Australian agents for Ortofon hi fi equipment?

I began the search by checking through the Australian yellow pages at Not much luck here as it did not reveal a specific Australian agent for Ortofon hi fi equipment.

It is starting to look like the products sold by Ortofon are rather specialised in nature.

So I've decided to use the Microsoft Network search engine. After typing "Ortofon" into the search field and pressed the search button, I've noticed a range of Ortofon-related web pages.

From what I can gather, Ortofon is a Danish company making moving coil cartridge recording systems

So I checked Orfoton's homepage at

This page provided a list of distributors for the Australasian market. As of the time I was searching for this company, only two distributors were mentioned. One was in New Zealand, and the other one was as follows:

Mr Tom Manning

Speakerbits P/L

Unit 3/70 Gladstone St

South Melbourne VIC 3205

Ph: 03 9682 2487

Question 2: I've come across the acryonym DEGP-A-CLO/GS in an Australian context. What does it stand for?

My first impression of this question is that this does not look like the name of an organisation. Rather, it might represent some kind of a process, method or system. I mean who would be silly enough to call their own organisation by this name if they wanted to easily advertise their presence in the marketplace?

So what did I find out? At first, the best that I could find in the Oxford Dictionary of Abbreviations (Alexander, Fran et al (eds.) 1998, England: Oxford University Press) was as follows:

DEG which stands for "Meteorol. degrees"

The Australian Dictionary of Acronyms and Abbreviations by David J. Jones ( 1990, Canberra: Alia Press) gave a different answer. It defines the closest term to the one requested as:

DEG: Debendox Enquiry Group

However, I picked up a more up-to-date version of The Australian Dictionary of Acronyms and Abbreviations by David J. Jones (4th Edition, 1995, Canberra:ALIA Press). This time it defines the acronym precisely as follows:

DEGP-A-CLO/GS: Directorate of Electronic and General Procurement - Army - Clothing and General Stores

Now I know why the organisation does not advertise itself to the public!