Reference and User Services Librarian

In 2021, the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) of the American Library Association (ALA) re-defined the meaning of the word “reference,” to better reflect its usage in today’s libraries. In short, reference is defined as “providing assistance by using expertise in response to an information need.” In context, the definition of reference includes an interaction between a group or individual and a librarian who is responding to current information needs. Reference and instruction are parts of a continuum, and reference could include instruction, but it is not considered to be formal teaching. Reference help is also not defined as workshops or other programming that library staff designs in anticipation of information needs. Reference librarians work closely with users to help fulfill their needs.

Key parts of the job of a reference and user services librarian include providing informational expertise, recommending and interpreting resources, promoting services, and managing service points within a library. Reference includes so much more than just finding books for users. Today, reference and user services librarians work in various sections within libraries, including business, interlibrary loan, collection development and evaluation, emerging technologies, history, library accessibility, and sharing and transforming access to resources. 

Female Reference and User Services Librarian working

If you would like to discover more about becoming a reference and user services librarian, please read on.

Education for Reference and User Services Librarians

The ALA recommends that all professional librarians have a Master of Library Science (MLS) or Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree from an ALA-accredited college or university. Some programs offer concentrations in Reference and User Services as an option. The ALA maintains a searchable database here where you can search for MLS/MLIS programs, and can include only programs that have a Reference and User Services concentration.

Specialized courses that you can expect to find if you choose a MLS/MLIS program with a Reference and User Services concentration will cover topics such as:

  • Information Resources in the Humanities: This class discusses information resources, methods and services that meet access needs in the humanities. It includes literature searching and communication patterns in different fields.
  • Instructional Strategies for Librarians and Information Professionals: This course helps students build knowledge and skills needed to create and deliver successful, innovative, culturally competent information literacy instruction in the library and information environment. 
  • Online Information Retrieval: This course focuses on the methods and principles of information retrieval through interactive database searching. Problems of database structure and organization, question negotiation, strategy formulation, and multi-database searching are explored. 
  • Business Reference Sources and Services: Going beyondbusiness reference sources and services, this course targets students who are interested in learning more specialized business reference analytical skills or are considering careers in business reference libraries.
  • Advanced Reference Service Strategies: This course presents the reference environment, physically and digitally, and interaction with human information behavior, with a focus on information seeking in context and information sources. 

Reference and User Services Librarian Job Description

The RUSA has created professional competencies for reference and user services librarians. These competencies provide a look into what the job description of a reference and user services librarian would cover:

  • Access relevant and accurate recorded knowledge and information
  • Offer services responsive to individual expressed user needs
  • Organize and design services to meet the needs of the primary community
  • Evaluate, collect, retrieve and synthesize information from diverse sources
  • Identify and present highly recommended sources
  • Interact with colleagues and others to provide consultation, mediation and guidance in using knowledge and information
  • Collaborate and partner with the user in the information seeking process
  • Collaborate with colleagues to provide service to users
  • Develop collaborative relationships within the profession to enhance service to users
  • Develop and maintain partnerships beyond the library profession to strengthen service to users
  • Develop appropriate expertise in information literacy and instruction skills and abilities, including textual, visual, digital, numerical and spatial literacies
  • Define information literacy
  • Integrate information literacy concepts into the full range of library services
  • Design and implement presentation and communication strategies to foster learning
  • Create a learner-centered teaching environment
  • Promote and demonstrate the value of library services through marketing and advocacy
  • Understand and apply marketing theory and practices
  • Develop, implement and evaluate an ongoing marketing plan for library services
  • Advocate the value of library services to the primary community
  • Assess and respond to diversity in user needs, user communities and user preferences
  • Investigate, analyze and plan in order to develop future services

Jobs for Reference and User Services Librarians

The ALA maintains a job site here on which they advertise openings for reference and user services librarians. Such openings, of course, can also be found on Internet job sites such as A quick perusal of Internet job sites found the following openings for reference and user services librarians as of March 2022:

  • Reference Librarian, City of McAllen – McAllen, TX
    • Salary: $44,359/year
    • Requires MLS/MLIS 
  • Reference Librarian-Coordinator of Access Services, Utica College – Utica, NY
    • Salary: not specified
    • Requires MLS/MLIS and experience providing reference and instruction in an academic library
  • Reference Librarian, Sarasota County Government – Sarasota, FL
    • Salary: $42,452.80 to $58,073.60/year
    • Requires MLS/MLIS and one year of library experience 
  • Head of Reference & Instruction, Illinois Institute of Technology Paul V. Galvin Library – Chicago, IL
    • Salary: no specified
    • Requires MLS/MLIS and three to five years’ reference or instructor librarian experience
  • Reference Librarian, Drexel University – Philadelphia, PA
    • Salary: $44,000 to $55,800/year
    • Requires bachelor’s degree and two years of reference librarian experience 

Organizations and Resources for Reference and User Services Librarians

These organizations and resources should be of particular interest to students who wish to become reference and user services librarians, as well as to current reference and user services librarians:

Reference & User Services Quarterly– This is the official journal of the Reference and User Services Association of the ALA. It is published online four times per year, and presents information that is of interest to reference librarians, information specialists, and other professionals who work in user-oriented library services. 

Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL)– This division of the ALA represents 9000 individuals and libraries across the country. It was founded in 1940 and is committed to advancing learning, enhancing scholarship, and creating inclusive, diverse communities.

Reference and User Services Association (RUSA)– This division of the ALA has six specialty section that are free to RUSA members: Business Reference and Services Section (BRASS), Collection Development and Evaluation Section (CODES), History Section (HS), Emerging Technologies Section (ETS), Reference Services Section (RSS) and Sharing and Transforming Access to Resources Section (STARS).