Library Jargon and You: “Reference”

Have you ever tried to use the library website, or had a librarian speak to your class, or been talking to a professor, and heard a word or phrase associated with research that they seemed to know but you didn't? Like "Boolean" or "stacks" or "catalog" or "database?" Were you afraid to ask what it meant because you didn't want to look uninformed? You're not alone!

Librarians and other info-workers have studied time and time again how our use of language affects library services and library users. In particular, a 2015 study by the database company EBSCO found that many students do not speak "Library-ese," finding that many terms librarians considered obvious were in fact jargon. (The term "jargon" might itself be jargon, since you may not be familiar with it, but according to the Cambridge Dictionary definition it means "words and phrases used by particular groups of people, esp. in their work, that are not generally understood.")

As part of our ongoing mission to be as much service to our students, faculty, and staff as we can be, we here at DiMenna-Nyselius Library always try to keep our language as plain as possible, but sometimes we slip up or just don't really have a good equivalent term! So we're starting a new blog series to address library jargon.

Let's start out with a term that's very relevant to the topic of keeping library users informed: "reference."


"Reference" services were not always a thing. Historically, libraries have actually been kind of unwelcoming places, with books literally chained to the shelves and users never allowed into the "stacks," or area where the books were kept. This was partially because for a long time books were very expensive and time-consuming to produce, so there was a lot of fear of theft. Also, keeping information from the public to keep them ignorant, and therefore easily manipulated, is a time-honored tradition among those in power.

But for many years now libraries have made it their mission to make and keep information accessible. As part of that mission, there are Reference services. Reference services consist of a few moving parts (in order of importance): the people, the tools, and the location.

The People: Reference Librarians

The reference librarian team. Top left to right: Curtis, Barbara, Christina, Lisa. Bottom left to right: Elise, Matt S., Mat B., EmilyThe librarians at DiMenna-Nyselius, pictured left, are here for you! It's our duty and pleasure to help you with your research, whether that means in the Library at the Reference Desk (see below), online or over the phone, or in a class. Wherever we see you, please feel free to ask us your questions.

Librarians are required to have a Master's, and many academic librarians take advantage of job perks to get a second or even third advanced degree in a discipline we're interested in, so we're often specialists. But whether we have a lot of schooling or not, we all have training in information and information-seeking, so we can help you with pretty much any research need you might have.

The Tools: Books and Databases and Journals, oh my!

Book dust jackets, artfully arrangedLibraries are not just a bunch of books anymore, and they haven't been for a long time! You probably already know that the majority of what you'll do for research is online. You've probably used ebooks, ejournals, streamed music and video, and more. But there's no "one size fits all" database or other online tool that can help you with every single thing you might need to research. That's where the reference librarians come in. We use the tools we offer you so that we know what and where they work best, and we can help you pick out the research tool you need and teach you how to use it. And yeah, sometimes it might be a book, but we can even help you do that quicker and easier!

The Location: The Reference Desk (for now)

The reference desk, complete with reference librarianDiMenna-Nyselius has a Reference Desk, and it's a really busy one. If you've never been to it, check it out! Coming in from the front doors of the Library, it's the long wooden desk on the right side (pictured left). The desk houses lots of reference books and there's a reference librarian there from 10am to 10pm most days (and you can check those hours online). This is where you can go to ask nearly any research question.

Some libraries have moved away from the Reference Desk model and are trying other things, such as just having a Circulation Desk (we'll cover that term at a later date) and keeping librarians on call in their offices, or doing "roving" reference, where a reference librarian takes a laptop or tablet and "roves" the library looking for people who look like they need help. This is because as information moves more and more from the realm of the physical (books, magazines, CDs, etc.) to the realm of the non-physical and usually online, library users are less and less likely to physically visit a place to get information. That's why the librarians at the desk are also answering telephone, text, and chat questions too.

Why are reference services still important?

Author Neil Gaiman once said “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.” And while we don't want to seem bigheaded... it's kind of true. Librarians are educated in doing research, it's our specialty!

Even the most experienced professors often turn to librarians for help. Sometimes the huge availability of information online is more of a curse than a blessing... it's like trying to drink from a firehose. Everyone could use some help when they're overwhelmed.

So if you have a research question, no matter how big or how small, there are a ton of ways to get help. All you have to do is Ask a Librarian!